Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Worldwide PSE

Post-secondary education issues and policy in countries other than Canada.

October 13

Notes from Brazil

There’s a lot happening in Brazil these days, what with an economic catastrophe, an impeached President, a significant fraction of the country’s political class and business elite under indictment, the return of major gang warfare to Rio and a set of Men’s World Cup qualifying results which suggest that the selecão might not be quite as useless one would think given their performances in their last three tournaments.  Meanwhile, there are lots of big stories in higher education, too:

Science With Borders

When then-President Dilma Rousseff launched the program Science Without Borders in 2011, it was like catnip for research universities around the world.  Brazil was going to “internationalize” its higher education system by sending hundreds of thousands of graduate students abroad on full-tide scholarships?  Bazinga!  Cue international offices making frantic efforts to learn Portuguese and making scouting trips to Campinas and Porto Allegre.

It didn’t take long for reality to hit.  By 2015, with the Brazilian economy in free-fall, the government “suspended”, mostly to save money but also in response to mounting criticism (from OISE’s Creso Sà, among others) that the program did not represent good value for money due to design flaws.  This spring the government dropped the other shoe: the program is being shuttered for good.  Given the economic chaos, it may be a long while before we see that many Brazilians seeking schooling outside the country again.

Blame it on Rio

The state of Rio de Janeiro is broke, thanks to a combination of economic depression and the crippling costs of holding the Summer Olympics in 2016.  So broke, in fact, that the state is having trouble paying to keep open its public universities.  Bills to subcontractors have gone unpaid for months, leaving students without cafeterias.  By June they ran out of money to pay teachers, and at the end of July the university shut down indefinitely.  Professors, for reasons which I don’t totally understand, chose the day after that announcement to go on strike (obviously, striking if you don’t get paid makes sense, but striking after the term has already been suspended seems like odd timing). School resumed in late August, but pay was interrupted again almost immediately and professors went back on strike last week.

The federal government, which is considering various bailout plans for the state, has told the Rio government to start thinking about privatization and – in the case of universities – charging fees (something the federal government does not do itself at federal universities).  Cue the usual inaccurate stuff about how tuition can’t possibly co-exist with access, which is ludicrous because…

Two Million New Students in One Year?

…as we all know, something like 75% of all students in Brazil are in private universities which exist almost entirely off tuition fees (there are a few older Catholic universities which have other streams of income but they’re the minority).  If your point of reference for private universities is American 4-year institutions, you might think there is big inequality here, with the richer kids going to private universities and poorer ones relegated to the free public ones.  But of course that would be wrong: the free public ones (some of them, anyway) are the prestigious institutions, and with places rationed on academic results, it’s the kids from better-off families who tend to predominate.  Most studies which have looked at the question suggest that the income distribution in the two systems is either roughly comparable or more tilted to the poor on the private side.

Over the last decade, both left and right governments have counted on private education providers to do the bulk of the work in expanding access. For instance, during Lula’s first term, the government created a program called ProUni, which gives institutions tax breaks in return for providing bursaries for low-income students (at least one for every 10.7 students served).  This program was part of the reason behind the remarkable growth in private university enrolments – from 1 million undergraduate students in 1994 to over 4 million in 2010 (for some reason, Brazilians only keep statistics on undergraduate enrolments – data on graduate students is almost impossible to find).

Figure 1: University Enrolments by Sector, Brazil, 1991-2015

Source :Instituto Nacional de Estudos et Pequisas Educacionias Anisio Teixeiras

But if the long-term trend on private education in Brazil is impressive, what happened in 2015 is nothing short of astounding.  According to the Institutio Nacional de Estudis et Peguisas Educacionias Anisio Teixeiras, which publishes the country’s most complete set of enrolment statistics, in 2015, numbers in the private sector jumped by just under 2 million students, from 4.67 million to 6.63 million.  I half-think this is a misprint, but it seems like an authoritative source and Brazil is just crazy enough as a country that this might actually have happened.  If so, it’s a development to watch.

Bom Fim de Semana

October 06

Of No Fixed Address

Most people usually think of universities as being particularly stable, physically speaking.  Sure, they grow a bit: if they are really ambitious they add a satellite campus here and there – maybe even set one up overseas.  But by and large, the centre of the university itself stays put, right?

Well, not always.  There are some interesting exceptions.

In the first place, the idea of a “university” as a physical place where teaching gets done is not a universal one.  In many places, a university was a place that offered examinations and degrees while the teaching was done somewhere else, like in colleges.  The University of Manitoba started off that way, for instance: individual colleges were scattered around Winnipeg, and U of M just handed out the degrees.  UBC and the University of Victoria, famously, started their lives as colleges which prepared people to take McGill degrees; ditto Brandon and McMaster.  And all of this was more or less based on an example back in England, where the University of London played the same role right across the Empire (a number of African colleges started life as prep colleges for University of London degrees).

Some universities had to move because of wartime exigencies.  After the Japanese invasion of 1937, the majority of Chinese universities – the public ones, anyway – hightailed it to the interior, to Wuhan and then later to Chongking or Yunnan.  There, many universities would share campuses and what little bits of laboratories and libraries the universities had managed to bring with them.  Peking, Tsinghua and Nanking universities actually merged temporarily to form the South-west Associated University.  Similarly, during the Korean War, the main universities in Seoul (Yonsei, Korea, and Seoul National) all left town and headed to the (relative) safety of Busan, only returning to the capital when the war was over.  As in China there was a great deal of co-operation between fugitive universities; some observers say the big prestigious Korean universities have never been as willing to accept credits from other schools as they were at the start of the 1950s.  And sometimes, fugitive universities never make it home.  A number of religious universities in Taiwan for instance (e.g. Soochow University, Fu Jen Catholic University) were originally located in mainland China but left ahead of the Communist take-over in 1949.

Domestic politics can lead to changes as well.  In Seoul, the challenge of locating a major campus quite close to the centre of political power was brought home to authorities when students from Seoul National University helped overthrow the Syngman Rhee government in 1960.  Rhee’s successor, Park Chung-hee, put a safe distance between students and the regime by relocating the entire campus south of the river the following decade.   In Belgium until the 1960s, the Catholic University of Leuven was in tricky situation – a prestigious, historically French institution in an area that was mostly Flemish-speaking.  Eventually, being Belgians, they decided that the best course of action was to split the university; basically, the Flemish got the site and the infrastructure while most of the professoriate decamped 20 mile to the south to a greenfield site in a French speaking province.  Thank God no one’s suggested that at McGill.

And finally, some universities aren’t where they used to be because, well, they aren’t the same university, even though they may share a name.  Visitors to Salerno might want to visit the local university, thinking it has some connection with the ancient medical school there.  Unfortunately, that university disappeared about 700 years ago; the modern thing up the hill is an expansion of a teacher training college created during the Second World War.

So, yes, universities on the whole are pretty durable, staid and stable institutions.  Doesn’t mean they don’t wander around on occasion.

October 03

The Real Competition is Closer Than You Think

I’ve recently been dismissive of the notion that Canada is “falling behind” in higher education since everyone seems to insist on making ludicrous comparisons with places like China, Switzerland and Singapore.  But upon a little bit of further digging, it turns out there is one of our very close competitors which is doing rather well these days, one we probably should be worried about despite the fact that we’ve mostly been ignoring it since the Financial Crisis of ’08.

It’s our neighbour to the south, the United States.

Now, back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when our dollar was worth diddly-squat and the Americans were spending seriously on higher education, the USA dominated Canadian discussion about foreign competitors.  It was all “brain drain” this and “impossible to keep our talent” that.  We were getting creamed.

Since 2008 it’s been a different story.  Everybody remembers 2009-2010, when top American talent was streaming across the border due to a combination of a strong Canadian dollar and savage cut-backs in the US.  And then the Obama stimulus expired in 2011 and everyone knew that was going to put paid for research dollars.  And the states were mostly bankrupt (look at what happened in Illinois!). And then Trump.  Trump!  Disaster, etc.  The story we’ve been telling ourselves is that the American higher ed policy for last decade or so has been one long exercise in Making Canada Great Again.

The problem is, this story isn’t quite true.

Let’s start by taking a look at what’s been going on in Canada, both at our top research universities (for the purpose of this exercise, the 8 universities that made this year’s Shanghai top 200 (Toronto, UBC, McMaster, McGill, Alberta, Montreal, Calgary and Ottawa) and at the rest of the higher education system.  Figure 1 shows the change in real average total institutional per-student expenditures, indexed to 2006.  What it shows is that – with some small differences in timing – both research-intensive and non-research-intensive institutions did well late last decade and worse this one, with both ending off with per-student expenditures about 3% lower than they were a decade earlier.

Figure 1: Change in Real Per-student Expenditures by sector, Shanghai top-200 ranked universities vs. rest of sector, Canadian Universities 2005-06 to 2015-16 (indexed to 2005-06)

Source: Statscan FIUC, Statscan PSIS

Now let’s look at similar data for private 4-year colleges in the United States. Same drill: the blue line represents the average of the 33 private universities which make the Shanghai top-200, and the orange line represented the average for the rest of the sector (about 1700 institutions in total.  For both, what we see is an unbroken increase in expenditures.  For many years it seemed like the big research heavyweights were leaving the rest of the sector behind, but in the last couple of years both sectors have seen a steady expansion of buying power.  For the decade, the research heavyweights are up 16%, and everyone else up 10%.

Figure 2: Change in Real Per-student Expenditures by sector, Shanghai top-200 ranked universities vs. rest of sector, US Private 4-year colleges 2004-05 to 2014-15 (indexed to 2004-05)

Source: IPEDS

(if you’re wondering why my ten-year span starts and ends a year later in Canada than in the US, the answer is that it turns out – miraculously – there is one piece of data reporting that Stascan does faster and better than the Americans, and that’s reporting on financials.  The 15-16 numbers just aren’t out yet in the US – sorry)

Ah, you say.  But that’s the private 4-year sector – not really a fair comparison.  Everyone knows those guys have loadsadough.  Compare us with the public sector instead – everyone knows those guys are in deep trouble, right?  Right?

Well….not exactly.  Across the big public research universities – the 37 that make the top 200 in the Shanghai rankings – expenditures are up 15% in real dollars on a decade ago, same as their counterparts in the private 4-year sector.  And the rest of the sector, the poor unloved disrespected non-research-intensive universities, they are up 8% on the decade.

Figure 3: Change in Real Per-student Expenditures by sector, Shanghai top-200 ranked universities vs. rest of sector, US Public 4-year colleges 2004-05 to 2014-15 (indexed to 2004-05)

Source: IPEDS

A reasonable question here is; how did the Canadian post-secondary community just miss this?  And miss it they did, because if they had this data they wouldn’t be making ludicrous claims about places like Switzerland.

The answer, I suspect, is that American universities are, from the perspective of our university leaders, are growing in the “wrong way”.  This growth isn’t happening because American governments – federal and state – are plunking down vast amounts of new money.  It’s because institutions are generating more money on their own – either through tuition, or self-generated income.  Now it’s not that Canadian institutions aren’t doing the same (albeit on a smaller scale) – as I’ve shown elsewhere, what growth there has been in real revenues in Canadian universities over the last five years has mostly come from new fee income.  But when our university lobbyists go to ask for money, it’s simpler to make the case for “investment” (i.e. spending) if the outside competition is mostly government-funded too.  It’s harder to walk in and say: “we need more money so we can compete with American universities who are really good at generating their own funds through fees” because our politicians are currently allergic to that solution.

Still, the fact of the matter is, American universities are very definitely on an up-swing at a time when even most countries – including vaunted China and Switzerland – are flat or even down somewhat.  This deserves more attention.

September 28

China, Switzerland, Singapore

The other day, I questioned a claim made by University of Toronto President Meric Gerlter that we were falling behind countries like “China, Switzerland and Singapore” having made major recent investments in science and higher education.  First of all, I noted, this was an odd trio, with nothing much to suggest it was true other than the rise of a few institutions in such countries as doing reasonably well in various university rankings.  Second, I noted that the claim that we are “falling behind” these countries was factually untrue, at least as it relates to investments in higher education.  Today, I’m going to prove that, by comparing recent data on expenditures in top universities in each of these to expenditures in ours.

(To be clear before I press on: I’m singling out Gertler for criticism because the Star picked up on his comment. But he’s far from the only one to have made it – I’ve heard that same line a couple of times lately in Canadian PSE.  So think of today’s column as a general warning shot on the topic of international comparisons rather than me taking down anyone in particular).

So let’s look at what’s been happening in each of these countries over the past few years, using data obtained from each institution’s annual & financial reports.  Let’s start with Canada.  Real expenditures per student at top universities rose in the latter half of the aughts and early in this decade.  Since 2012, they have been mixed, rising slightly at Alberta (+6%) and falling slightly at McGill (-2%), UBC (-3%) and Toronto (-4%) and more sharply at McMaster and Montreal (-8%).  Summed across all institutions, it’s a drop of 4%.

 Figure 1 – Per-student Expenditures of Top Canadian Universities, 2012-13 to 2015-16 (in C$2016)

Now let’s take a look at those other countries over the same period.  Let’s start with Switzerland, where we will look at the seven universities that make the Shanghai top 200.  Has there been an increase in expenditures?  Yes, there has: about 5.6% over the last few years.  But that’s been almost exactly matched by a 5% increase in students.  Interestingly, the growth in student numbers has been most pronounced at the best university: ETH Zurich – the institution to which the University of Toronto would be likeliest to compare itself – has seen it’s funding per student fall by 3% as a result.  Most of the per-student gain comes at the one university – Geneva – which saw a significant fall in student numbers.

Figure 2 – Per-student Expenditures of Top Swiss Universities, 2012 to 2016 (in SFr 2016)

Let’s move over to China.  Data from China is not great (as I noted a couple of weeks ago, Chinese universities are getting more transparent about institutional finances, but getting accurate institutional enrolment numbers is practically impossible).  Still, to the extent we have information, what we see is essentially no change over the past four years – up slightly at Shanghai Jiao Tong, down slightly everywhere else.

Figure 3 – Per-student Expenditures of Top Chinese Universities, 2013 to 2016 (in RMB 2016)

I know that one seems hard to believe given all we hear about “massive Chinese investments” in higher education.  And in the previous decade: say from 2000 to 2010, it’s true that there were massive investments.  But lately, expenditures are not quite keeping up with inflation and growth in student numbers.

(Some people may point to forthcoming investments on the back of China’s recently announced and then re-announced “Double World-Class” program, as per this recent article in Caixin Global.  But the amounts being bandied about here don’t actually seem all that significant.  Sun-Yat Sen University, for instance, is breathlessly reported as being in line to receive an extra RMB 480 million as part of this project.  But on a budget of over RMB 6 Billion, that’s less than an 8% increase, which given inflation and student growth probably washes out in less than two years.  So treat these claims with skepticism)

Finally, we have Singapore, where we do see clear-cut growth in real expenditures per student over the last few years, at the National University of Singapore (8%) and Nanyang University (13%).

Figure 4 – Per-student Expenditures of Top Singaporean Universities, 2013 to 2016 (in S$2016)

So, does this back up Gertler’s “greater investment” claims?  No, not quite.  A closer look at the two institutions financials shows something more subtle.  In both cases, universities started spending more relative to their income: Singapore went from posting a 5% surplus to a 1.5% surplus between 2012 and 2016; in Nanyang’s case, the institution  went from about a 5% surplus to a 3% deficit, which implies in both cases it was changes in financial habits as much as any new investment doing the work.  And some of the work was done by increased tuition fee income.  The increase in research income from government sources is really only doing about a third of the work here.

So, are China, Switzerland and Singapore really “leaving Canada behind”?  In the case of China and Switzerland the answer seems to be: only marginally, if at all.  In Singapore – tiny Singapore – the evidence that more money for research in play is clearer, but the total “extra funding” in question is maybe $250 million at two universities who between them might have 4,000 tenured faculty.

If this is the best competition we have, I’d say we’re doing OK.


September 27

Some Surprising (?) Data on Canadian University Expenditures

I’ve been doing some work on financial data of higher education institutions around the world, and specifically looking at what’s been going on at top research institutions compared to everyone else.  And I thought maybe you all would be interested in what I’ve found for Canada.

For the purpose of this document, I have separated the six institutions in Canada which always come top in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (aka “Shanghai Rankings”) – that’s Toronto, UBC, McGill, McMaster, Alberta and Montreal – from the rest, which allows me to look at “the Big 6” against everyone else.  Over the past fifteen years, those institutions have pretty consistently made up around 20% of the country’s total enrolments and about 30% of institutional expenditures.

Figure 1 shows growth in expenditures in real dollars, with 2000-2001 as the base year. And basically what it shows you is that Canadian universities had a money-hose aimed at them in the early 2000s, with annual increases in the 9-10% range.  These big increases continued for slightly longer at the big 6 than in the rest of the system, but by about 2006 they were growing at the same rate again (around 4% per year after inflation), and by 2011 growth had leveled off completely and was holding steady in real terms.  The more dramatic and historically-challenged in the community call this “austerity”, but actually it’s just steady-state.

Figure 1: Change in Canadian University Expenditures, 2000-01 to 2014-15, indexed to 2000-01 

But wait, you say, hasn’t participation rates been going up?  Weren’t there a lot of new students to accommodate in there?  There were indeed.  See figure 2.

Figure 2: Change in Canadian University Enrolments, 2000-01 to 2014-15, indexed to 2000-01 


Two things about changes in enrolments: first, they increase at roughly the same pace in the top 6 as everywhere else, and second, they increased pretty consistently across the time period, rather than jump radically at first and then tail off, as expenditures did.

From the foregoing you can probably do the math in your head and work out what per-student expenditures look like: rising a bit in the 00s and falling a bit since about 2000.  And this is in fact exactly what we see:

Figure 3: Per-student Expenditures at Canadian Universities, 2000-01 to 2014-15

But there’s a bit of a difference here.  If you’re not at one of the big six, per student expenditures in real dollar have been falling ever so slightly for seven or eight years and now sit right about where they were fifteen years ago.  If you’re at one of the big six, they’ve been falling only since the turn of the decade and they currently sit about 20% above where they were at the turn of the millennium.  The big institutions, which already spent a lot more per student because they had more expensive programs, did more research, etc, in a sense “pulled away” from the rest of the pack over the course of the aughts.

But actually what was most interesting to me in this exercise was looking at how heterogenous the “top 6” actually are in terms of expenditures.  At one end, you have Montreal, which sneaks into the world top 200 with expenditures of only about $30,000 per student (Montreal includes both Polytechnique and HEC for these purposes), which in fact make them look – financially anyway – more like the “everyone else” category than the rest of the big 6. Toronto, McGill, and McMaster all spend just north of $40,000 per student.  But the big western universities – Alberta and UBC – spend substantially more: over $50,000 in the case of the former and nearly $60,000 in the case of the latter.

Figure 4: Per-student Expenditures at Canadian “Top 6” institutions, 2000-01 to 2015-16

These graphs pose many interesting questions, but here are the three posers I’d most like to see explained:

i)      why didn’t Canadian universities derive any economies of scale when enrolments increased?

ii)     what are University of Alberta and UBC buying with their extra $10,000 per student per year?

iii)    what does Montreal do that allows it to get into the upper reaches of global research universities with a comparatively pedestrian budget?

Tomorrow, we can look a bit at how some of Canada’s “close competitors” stack up.

September 21

Flagship Universities vs World-Class Universities

Almost since the “world-class” university paradigm was established fifteen years ago, the concept has faced a backlash.  The concept was too focussed on research production, it was unidimensional, it took no account of universities’ other missions, etc. etc.  Basically the argument was that if people took the world class university concept seriously, we would have a university monoculture that ignored many important facets of higher education.

The latest iteration of this backlash comes in the form of the idea of “flagship universities”, promoted in the main by John Aubrey Douglass, a higher education expert at UC Berkeley.  Douglass’ idea is essentially that what the world needs is not more “world-class” universities – which he dismisses as being overly focussed on the production of research – but more “flagship” universities.  What’s the difference?  Well, “flagship” universities are – essentially – world class universities with a commitment to teaching top undergraduate students, to providing top-level professional education and to a mission of civic engagement, outreach and economic development.  Basically, all flagship universities are world-class universities, but not vice-versa.  They are world-class universities with a heart, essentially.

Or, that’s what promoters of a “flagship concept” would have you believe.  I would argue the concept is simply one of American academic colonialism, driven by a simplistic belief that all systems would be better if only they all had their own Morrill ActsWisconsin Ideas, and California Master Plans.

If you read Douglass’ book on the matter, it’s quite plain that when he says “flagship university” he means roughly the top 20 or so US public universities – Cal, Washington, Virginia, Michigan, etc.  And those are without question great universities and for the most part appropriate to the settings in which they exist.  But as a guiding concept for universities around the world, it’s at least as inappropriate as “world class” universities if not more because it assumes that these quintessentially American models will or should work more or less anywhere.

Start with the idea that to be a flagship university you have to have excellent research output.  That takes out nearly all of Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, Russia and Latin America, just as the “world class” concept does.  Then you must have a research culture with full academic freedom, freedom of expression, etc (say goodbye to China and the rest of Russia).  You must also have a commitment to combine undergraduate and professional education and to a highly selective intake process for both (adieu France, auf wiedersehen, Germany), and a commitment to community outreach in the way Americans think of it (sayonara Japan, annyeong Korea).

What’s left?  Universities in anglophone countries, basically.  Plus Scandinavia and the Netherlands.  That’s it.  But if you then add in the requirement that flagships are supposed to be at the top of an explicit system of higher education institutions (a la California Master Plan), then to some degree you lose everyone except maybe Norway.

Douglass is undoubtedly right in saying the world-class universities are – in practice if not in theory – a pretty reductive view of higher education (though in defence of the group in Shanghai who came with the concept, it’s fair to say they thought of it as a benchmarking tool not a policy imperative).  But while the flagship concept cannot be called reductive, even more so than the “world-class concept” it is culturally specific and not readily exportable outside of its home context.

Universities around the world are descended from different traditions.  The governments that pay for them and regulate them have legitimately different conceptions of what they are supposed to achieve and how they are supposed to achieve it.  People happen to have got worked up about “world-class” research universities because research happens to be the only part of university outputs that can be measured with in a way which is half-way useful, quantitatively speaking.  The problem lies not with the measurement of research outputs, and not even with the notion of institutions competing with one another, but rather with the notion that there is a single standard for excellence.

The flagship universities vs. world-class universities debate, at heart, is simply an argument about which single standard to use.  Those of us in North America might prefer the flagship model because it speaks to our historic experience and prejudices.  But that’s no reason to think anyone should adopt it, too.

September 14

Notes on the Finances of China’s Top Universities

One of my distractions over the past summer has been to learn more about Chinese universities.  And, fortunately, this is becoming a lot easier as Chinese universities are starting to put more of their data online.  Today, I just want to take you through a bit of a tour of China’s top universities (roughly the equivalent of the US Ivy League), which are known as the “C9”, most of which now put their financial data online.

So let’s start just by looking at raw annual expenditures (I prefer using expenditures to income as a guide to a university size because it tends to be more stable year-to-year) at these top universities.  Figure 1 shows this by institutions for the 2015 calendar year.  Tsinghua leads the pack by a wide margin, at a little over RMB 13 billion.  Peking, Zhejiang and Shanghai JiaoTong are next at between RMB 8-9 billion Yuan, Fudan followed by Fudan Xi’an Jiao Tong at between RMB 5-6 billion.  The bottom positions are held by the two C9 universities which do not report to the higher education ministry: the University of Science and Technology of China (Chinese Academy of Science) and the Harbin Institute of Technology (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) at RMB 3.4 billion and RMB 2.2 billion, respectively.

Figure 1: Expenditures, in Billions of RMBTop Chinese Universities, 2015

One interesting piece of information about these institutions is how little of their annual budget actually comes from government.  Figure 2 shows government appropriations as a percentage of annual expenditures (Harbin Institute of Technology is excluded because its financials do not distinguish between public and private sources of revenue).  As it turns out, top Chinese universities actually look a lot like Ontario ones in that they tend to get less than half their money from government.  That said, at most institutions student fees only account for about 15% of total revenue.

Figure 2: Government income as a % of total expenditures, Top Chinese Universities, 2015

Now at this point you may be wondering: RMB 13billion….is that a lot?  A little?  What’s the frame of reference here?  Well, fair enough.  Let’s put all this into US dollars, just so we’re clear.  And for reference, let’s throw in data for Harvard, Berkeley, U of T and UBC for 2015-16 for comparison.  To do this, I’m converting to USD at the mid 2015 exchange rate of RMB 6.21 = CDN $1.29 = USD $1.  The results are shown in Figure 3: By this measure, only Tsinghua is really up in the North American big leagues.

Figure 3: Total Expenditures, in USD, Top Chinese Universities plus US/Canada Comparators, 2015

But hang on a second.  What if we use purchasing power-parity instead of exchange rates?  Well, actually, this changes things more than you’d think.  If you convert the data at the mid-2015 Big Mac Index rate of RMB 3.55 = CDN $1.22 = USD $1.

Figure 4: Total Expenditures, in billions of USD at PPP, Top Chinese Universities plus US/Canada Comparators, 2015

Once adjusted for PPP, Tsinghua moves closer to Harvard, and the next three are more obviously in the big leagues, having all passed UBC.  Now in fact, PPP probably overstates universities’ buying power somewhat, because for many of the goods what universities purchase (top professors, scientific equipment, etc), the price is global rather than local.  So if you want to think about relative purchase power, a fair comparison between the institutions is probably somewhere between figure 3 and figure 4.

(If we were to do this from the perspective of “how big is each institution relative to the size and development of the economy” – that is, adjusting for GDP per capita, all the Chinese institutions would rise by a factor of four relative to American ones, i.e. Tsinghua would be three times as large as Harvard.

Now, what about dollars per student?  For this, I take the student numbers the institutions report to Quacquarelli Simons (QS) for use on its “top universities” website.  You can take these with a grain of salt: I can’t get QS’ numbers to line up with the data I have directly from any of these institutions, but it’s the most consistent thing we’ve got, so we’ll just have to live with it.

Figure 5: Expenditures per Student, in USD at PPP, Top Chinese Universities plus US/Canada Comparators, 2015

Now Tsinghua is much more clearly in an Ivy-League-approaching kind of position, with expenditures of over $100,000 per student.  That’s not near Harvard, which spends about twice that, but it is a full 25% higher than Berkeley and 150% higher than UBC and Toronto.  Even the Chinese second-tier trio of Shanghai Jiao Tong, Peking and Zhejiang are spending 50% more per student than the top Canadian universities.

In short, the top Chinese universities aren’t, as it is sometimes said, “rising”.  Financially, they’re already comfortably part of the world elite.

September 13

Some Curious Data From OECD Education at a Glance 2017

The OECD put out its annual Education at a Glance  publication yesterday.  No huge surprises except for the fact that they appear to have killed one of the most-used tables in the whole book (A.1.2, which compared tertiary attainment rates for 25-34 year olds by type of tertiary program – i.e. college v. university) which is an enormous bummer.  The finance data says what it pretty much always says: Canada is the #2 spender overall on higher education at 2.6% of GDP (just behind the US at 2.7%).  If you read my analysis last year, the story is still pretty much the same this year.

But there are some interesting nuggets buried away in the report nevertheless – stuff that other media won’t pick up.  I thought I would highlight two of them in particular which pose some thorny questions about Canadian statistical data and what we think we know about higher education.

Let’s start with the data on expenditures per pupil at the tertiary level.  Figure 1 looks at costs in Short-cycle Tertiary Education (meaning career-oriented, which in Canada’s case means community colleges)

Figure 1: Total Expenditures per Student, Colleges (or equivalent), Select OECD countries

Among major countries, Canada spends the most (from both public and private sources) on college or college-equivalent student.  A couple of countries actually do outspend us (the Austrians and – totally out left field – the Czechs), but the important point here is that our expenditures are nearly 40% above the OECD average.  And if you’re wondering why the UK and the US aren’t there, it’s because the former has no college equivalent and the latter chooses to not to report on colleges on the batshit crazy spurious grounds that even if you’re studying for a (college-equivalent) associate’s degree, the fact that this can be laddered up into a full bachelor’s means everything is really degree-level.  Nonsense, I know, but there we are.

Now, let’s do the same with universities:

Figure 2: Total Expenditures per Student, Universities, Select OECD countries

There’s not much in figure 2 we didn’t already know: US and Canada in terms of total expenditure per university student at the top with us over 50% above the OECD average and Korea way down at the bottom because the Koreans do everything in higher ed on a shoestring.

Now, one new little detail that OECD has added to Education at a Glance this year is that it splits out the portion of total expenditures (that is combine short-cycle and degree-levels)  which are devoted to R&D.  And this data is a little odd.

Figure 3: Total R&D Expenditures per Tertiary Student, Selected OECD Countries

There’s nothing obviously egregiously wrong with figure 3 – except for the data on the USA, which is bananas.  Read literally, it suggests that Canadian universities on average spend twice as much on R&D as American ones do and that’s simply false.

(The explanation, I think, is that Canada and possibly some other countries claim that all professors’ time spent on research – notionally 40% of time or thereabout – counts as “R&D”.  Whereas Americans claim that their universities – which only pay staff for 9 months a year with the rest of the time notionally off for research – do not count time that way, preferring to claim that the government is buying profs’ time with research grants.  Basically, they view universities as mailboxes for cheques to pay for staff time and so all that time money gets claimed as government expenditure on R&D, not university expenditure on R&D.  GERD, not HERD, in the innovation policy lingo.  I think, anyway).

What’s actually a little crazy about figure 3 is that the denominator is all tertiary students, not just degree-level students.  And yet we know that R&D money is pretty heavily concentrated (98%+) in universities.  In a country like Germany where over 99% of tertiary students are in degree-level institutions, that’s not a big deal.  But in Canada, about a third of our students are in short-cycle programs.  Which means, if you do the math, that in fact the R&D expenditures per university student are a little ways north of $9750.  Now here’s figure 3 again, with just degree-level students in the denominator.

Figure 4: Total R&D Expenditures per University Student, Selected OECD Countries

And of course, subtracting these numbers means we can revisit figure 2 and work out total non-R&D expenditures per student in universities.  Canada still remains 40% or so ahead of the OECD average, but is now similarly that far behind the US in per-student expenditure.

Figure 5: Total non-R&D Expenditures per University Student, Selected OECD Countries

Now, to be clear: I’m not saying OECD is wrong, or Statscan is wrong or anything else like that.  What I’m saying is that there appear to be major inconsistencies in the way institutions report data for international comparative purposes on key concepts like R&D.  And that this particular inconsistency means that Canada at least (possibly others) look a lot better vis-à-vis the United States than it probably should.

Just something to keep in mind when making comparisons in future – particularly around research expenditures and performance.

September 08

Data on Sexual Harassment & Sexual Assault in Higher Ed-an Australian Experiment

Earlier this year, I raged a bit at a project that the Ontario government had launched: namely, an attempt to survey every single student in Ontario about sexual assault in a way that – it seemed to me – likely to be (mis)used for constructing a league table on which institutions had the highest rates of sexual assault.  While getting more information about sexual assault seemed like a good idea, the possibility of a league table – based as it would be on a voluntary survey with pretty tiny likely response rates – was a terrible idea which I suggested needed to be re-thought.

Well, surprise!  Turns out Australian universities actually did this on their own initiative last year.  They asked the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to conduct a survey almost exactly along the lines I said was a terrible idea. And the results are…interesting.

To be precise: the AHRC took a fairly large sample (a shade over 300,000) of university students – not a complete census the way Ontario is considering – and sent them a well-thought-out survey (the report is here).  The response rate was 9.7%, and the report authors quite diligently and prominently noted the issues with data of this kind, which is the same as bedevils nearly all student survey research, including things like the National Survey of Student Engagement, the annual Canadian Undergraduate Research Consortium studies etc etc.

The report went on to outline a large number of extremely interesting and valuable findings.  Even if you take the view that these kinds of surveys are likely to overstate the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment because of response bias, the data about things like the perpetrators of assault/harassment, the settings in which it occurs, report of such events and the support sought afterwards are still likely to be accurate, and the report makes an incredible contribution by reporting these in detail (see synopses of the reports  from CNN, and Nature).  And, correctly, the report does not reveal data by institution.

So everything’s good?  Well, not quite.  Though the AHRC did not publish the data, the fact that it possessed data which could be analysed by institution set up a dynamic where if the data wasn’t released, there would be accusations of cover-up, suppression, etc.  So, the universities themselves – separate from the AHRC report – decided to voluntarily release their own data on sexual assaults.

Now I don’t think I’ve ever heard of institutions voluntarily releasing data on themselves which a) allowed direct comparisons between institutions b) on such a sensitive subject and c) where the data quality was so suspect.  But they did it.  And sure enough, news agencies such as ABC (the Australian one) and News Corp immediately turned this crap data into a ranking, which means that for years to come, the University of New England (it’s in small-town New South Wales) will be known as the sexual assault capital of Australian higher education.  Is that label justified?  Who knows?  The data quality makes it impossible to tell.   But UNE will have to live with it until the next time universities do a survey.

To be fair, on the whole the media reaction to the survey was not overly sensationalist.  For the most part, it focussed on the major cross-campus findings and not on institutional comparisons.  Which is good, and suggests that some of my concerns from last year may have been overblown (though I’m not entirely convinced our media will be as responsible as Australia’s).  That said, for data accuracy, use of a much smaller sample with incentives to produce a much higher response rate would still produce a much result with much better data quality than what the ARHC did, let alone the nonsensical census idea Ontario is considering.  The subject is too important to let bad data quality cloud the issue.


Erratum: There was a data transcription error in yesterday’s piece on tuition.  Average tuition in Alberta is $5749 not $5479, meaning it is slightly more expensive than neighbouring British Columbia, not slightly less.

August 31

Free Tuition Developments

One major trend of the last couple of years in global higher education has been the arrival of a wave of “free tuition” policies in jurisdictions that formerly charged them and which – in some cases – have substantial private higher education sectors.  But announcing free tuition is one thing: actually pulling it off is another.  Let’s take a quick look-in at how things are playing out in various parts of the world.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte (Luzon’s answer to Donald Trump) declared education at all public universities free in the state budget earlier this year, and the policy came into effect this fall.  Of course, this only affects a minority of students because public universities only educate about 45% of Filipino students: the rest attend one of the country’s 1500 or so private universities.  And fees were never that high to begin with (in the region of $150/year at most state colleges).

But what’s brilliant about the Philippines “free tuition” program is the packaging.  The budget for implementation is only P8 billion ($200 million Canadian or $160 million US), which is considerably short of what is needed to cover all students.  So to make up for it, they are i) putting an academic progress filter on the program (i.e. fail too many courses and you have to start paying fees) and more importantly ii) putting an income filter on it as well.  But, intriguingly, the law doesn’t say “targeted aid for the poor”; rather, what it says is “as a rule, fees shall be abolished” but that universities “shall create a mechanism to enable students with the financial capacity to pay…to voluntarily opt out of the tuition and other school fees subsidy or make a contribution to the school.”  In practice, what this means is that the funds will be distributed to institutions who in turn will provide fee waivers to students in order of financial need (a slightly more detailed explanation is available in this article from the Philippines Star).  Too rich?  No subsidy.  But the actual cut-off line will vary somewhat from institution to institution.

(I know that sounds weird, but running student aid through institutions rather than a national government is actually pretty common in southeast Asia).

Still, the government is sufficiently worried about extra demand that it is reinstating an entrance exam to keep growth in numbers down.  Which of course does make you wonder why they put free tuition in place in the first, if not to increase participation.

Over in Chile, President Bachelet has moved to expand the free tuition subsidy (“gratuidad”) to students from the sixth income decile starting this coming February; previously it was only available to students from the lowest five deciles.  In theory, the government is meant to nudge this up to the seventh decile by 2020, but the likelihood that the left will still be in power by then is pretty slim: polls right now have former centre-right president Sebastian Pinera well out in front, and he’s already more or less said he’s not committed to anything above the 50% threshold.

In the US, two states – New York and Oregon – brought in “free tuition” programs last year.  Oregon’s was a free community college plan, much like Tennessee’s; New York’s was a “targeted free tuition” system for 4-year colleges, which looked much like those in Ontario and New Brunswick only less well-targeted.  Now, both are slightly off the rails because of the weird way that legislation and appropriation happen separately in the US.  Despite “enacting” free tuition, neither state actually set aside enough money to actually make it work properly.  In Oregon, the short-fall means roughly 20% of students who should have been eligible will not receive benefits.  In New York, the demand for the new “Excelsior” scholarships exceeded the budgeted amount by a factor of three.  The best one can say for this situation is, as my colleague Robert Kelchen says, is that this is an unrivalled opportunity to test the “disappointment effect” in student aid.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, our two targeted free tuition programs – in Ontario and New Brunswick – seem to have started without much of a hitch.  For the moment, at least, we’re leading the pack in terms of coherent implementation.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

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