HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Worldwide PSE

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

July 10

England has lost its damn mind over tuition fees

Ok, I said I wouldn’t write over the summer unless someone of importance said something titanically stupid.  Andrew Adonis, architect of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s education policies crossed that line on Friday with a – yes – titanically stupid column about tuition fees, so here I am.

First, some background.  Prior to 1998, the UK had a free tuition system.  From 1998 to 2006 it had a system of varying tuition fees – £1,000 if your family made over £30,000 per year, and then a sliding scale down to zero if family income fell below £20,000.  From 2006 to 2012, it was a flat £3,000 (rising with inflation) accompanied by the (re)-introduction of means-based grants for living costs.  Loans were available to all to cover fees, meaning no one need pay a cent up-front (“free at the point of delivery” in the UK parlance), and said loans were recovered via the tax system as in Australia and New Zealand.  Required repayment rates were a modest 9% of income above the threshold, which started at £10K in 1998 and rose to £15K in 2006.  Loans not repaid within a given time frame were to be forgiven.

(If you’re trying to work out what those numbers mean in Canadian dollars, for most of the past 15 years PPP equivalent has been pretty close to £1 =C$1.70, so just multiply everything in this piece by 1.7 and you’ve got it).

Shortly after the 2006 went into effect, the bottom fell out of financial markets, and one of the worst-hit countries was the UK.  Anticipating that major reductions in public spending were going to be necessary, then-PM Gordon Brown convened a commission to look at university finances and tuition fees which, conveniently, would not report until after the 2010 election.  The resulting Browne (not the PM, another guy) Review became the basis for the post-election Tory-Liberal coalition government’s policy of i) reducing government funding to universities by over 40%, including a total elimination of per-student subsidies for teaching in the social sciences and humanities and ii) allowing universities to raise fees to up to an eye-watering £9,000 per year.

What this meant was that between loans for tuition and loans for living costs in in ludicrously-pricey London, “debt” for a three-year degree could quite easily end up at over £50,000.  But to “compensate”, loans were made more generous with the repayment threshold jumped from £15,000 to £21,000 while retaining the debt forgiveness policy.  In other words, the government increased student debt massively while simultaneously it harder to recover (see here for a comparison of repayment burdens in UK vs. other countries).

The results of this were predictable.  Though student “debts” rose enormously, these debts were in some sense purely nominal; most predictions showed that something like three-quarters of graduates would never repay the debts and hence the government would assume their balances.  What most students were signing on to was therefore not a loan but a marginal tax of 9% on income over £21,000 lasting 30 years; that is, a so-called graduate tax.  The problem was that no one knew in advance whether they were signing on for a graduate tax or a loan – that would only become apparent a decade or two into one’s working career.  Oh, and government would eventually end up picking up about half the total cost of loans.

Remarkably, this proved unpopular among students.  So much so that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish fees altogether – a move which while wiping away some obvious policy lunacy would also be a massive gift to the future wealthy – was widely credited with a big upswing in the youth vote which in turn was widely credited with denying Agent Teresa May a majority in last month’s election’s, despite the fact that Corbyn’s stance on Europe and Brexit is diametrically opposed to theirs.  And now that Corbyn no longer looks vulnerable to an internal coup, various Blairite Labour types are now busy re-writing the history of the last two decades to justify a 180 on a fees policy they either wrote or agreed with in spirit.

Which is where this Andrew Adonis article in last Friday’s Guardian comes in.  Adonis helped draft the ’98 and ’06 fee policy changes, and he would surely have agreed with the direction (if not the full extent) of the post-Browne Review changes.  Yet now, apparently, fees must be abolished.  Why?  Because the beautiful Labour vision, in which allowing tuition fees to rise “up to” £3,000 (up to £9,000 post-Browne) would create a functioning market in which institutions would compete like mad and multiple price-quality points would emerge was stymied by evil university vice-chancellors (i.e. Presidents) who “formed a cartel” in which all of them charged the maximum, thus stifling competition.

This is a strange and bewildering argument for two reasons.  First, in none of the three fee hikes was quality-enhancing competition a primary policy goal.  System expansion (and to a lesser extent, increasing per-student resources) was the primary goal in ’98 and ‘06; income maintenance in the face of swingeing public cutbacks was the goal in ’12.  The policies succeeded very well in both instance without damaging access for lower-income students.  Inter-institutional competition might have been a secondary goal in 2006 and a rationalization (though not a rationale) in ’12, but never the central aim.  To advocate dismantling policies because they didn’t meet some secondary goal is…bizarre.

Second, and more importantly, WHAT IN GOD’S NAME DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN WHEN THE FEE CAP WAS LIFTED?  Higher education is a Veblen good, for God’s sake: in the absence of obvious measures of quality (rankings notwithstanding), consumers tend to judge the quality of education on things like cost and so cost and demand are not negatively correlated – in fact in some ways, higher costs drive higher demand (look at George Washington University’s fee policy and admission rates over the past couple of decades if you don’t believe me).  For Adonis’ competitive fantasy to have taken place, there would have had to have been institutions eager to signal that they might have lower quality by pricing significantly below the rest of the herd -and what university would want to do that?  Perhaps Adonis should name the institutions that he thought should have adopted a Walmart pricing policy.

Now to be fair, Adonis is hardly alone in his delusions about higher education competition.  England is one of those rare places where the term “neo-liberal higher education policy” actually makes some kind of sense.  There is a touching faith among policy makers there that a genuinely functioning competitive market is just one set of transparency tools around the corner.  League tables and key information sets didn’t create a functioning market in which quality is rewarded with greater pricing power?  Well, then, we’ll create the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), in which government will decide what quality is, and create a fee regime which will gradually create differentiated pricing by fiat.  Take that, Thorstein Veblen!

But the difference between Adonis and the TEF crowd is that the latter isn’t trying to roll back two decades of policy to ingratiate themselves with Jeremy Corbyn.  They aren’t running away from a policy which has been mostly effective just because they’ve suddenly realized students don’t like fees and debt (which of course is nonsense – they don’t pay up-front fees and for the most part they sign up to a 9% graduate tax/contribution not “debt” per se).

Does English fee policy need changing?  Of course.  The 2012 changes and subsequent amendments were as dumb as a bag of hammers.  But it’s a hell of a leap from that to “time to abolish tuition”, at least for someone with pretensions to being taken seriously in policy debates.  If that’s not something Adonis aspires to any more, that’s his business.  But the fact that this step is being considered seriously not just by Labour but by Tories as well should be worrying to everyone.  It means reasonable policy making is being thrown out the window for reasons of currying short-term favour with specific voter demographics.

In this policy field as in so many others, England appears to be losing its mind.

 

June 05

Student Health (Part 3)

You know how it is when someone tries to make a point about Canadian higher education using data from American universities? It’s annoying.  Makes you want to (verbally) smack them upside the head. Canada and the US are different, you want to yell. Don’t assume the data are the same! But of course the problem is there usually isn’t any Canadian data, which is part of why these generalizations get started in the first place.

Well, one of the neat things about the AHCA-NCHA campus health survey I was talking about last week is that it is one of the few data collection instruments that is in use on both sides of the border. Same questions, administered at the same time to tens of thousands of students on both sides of the border. And, as I started to look at the data for 2016, I realized my “Canada is different” rant is – with respect to students and health at least – almost entirely wrong. Turns out Canadian and American students are about as alike as two peas in a pod. It’s kind of amazing, actually.

Let’s start with basic some basic demographic indicators, like height and weight. I think I would have assumed automatically that American students would be both taller and heavier than Canadian ones, but figure 1 shows you what I know.

Figure 1: Median Height (Inches) and Weight (Pounds), Canadian vs. US students.

OTTSYD-1

Now, let’s move over to issues of mental health, one of the key topics of the survey. Again, we see essentially no difference between results on either side of the 49th parallel.

Figure 2: Within the last 12 months have you been diagnosed with/treated for…

OTTSYD-2

What about that major student complaint, stress? The AHCA-NCHA survey asks students to rate the stress they’ve been under over the past 12 months. Again, the patterns in the two countries are more or less the same.

Figure 3: Within the last 12 months, rate the stress you have been under.

OTTSYD-3

One interesting side-note here: students in both countries were asked about issues causing trauma or being “difficult to handle”. Financial matters were apparently more of an issue in Canada (40.4% saying yes) than in the US (33.7%). I will leave it to the reader to ponder how that result lines up with various claims about the effects of tuition fees.

At the extreme end of mental health issues, we have students who self-harm or attempt suicide. There was a bit of a difference on this one, but not much, with Canadian students slightly more likely to indicate that they had self-harmed or attempted suicide.

Figure 4: Attempts at Self-harm/suicide.

OTTSYD-4

What about use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit substances? Canadian students are marginally more likely to drink and smoke, but apart from that the numbers look pretty much the same. The survey, amazingly, does not ask about use of opioids/painkillers, which if books like Sam Quinones’ Dreamland are to be believed have made major inroads among America’s young – I’d have been interested to see the data on that. It does have a bunch of other minor drugs – heroin, MDMA, etc, and none of them really register in either country.

Figure 5: Use of Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine.

OTTSYD-5

This post is getting a little graph-heavy, so let me just run through a bunch of topics where there’s essentially no difference between Canadians and Americans: frequency of sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners, use of most illegal drugs, use of seat belts, likelihood of being physically or sexually assaulted, rates of volunteering….in fact among the few places where you see significant differences between Canadian and American students is with respect to the kinds of physical ailments they report. Canadian students are significantly more likely to report having back pain, Americans more likely to report allergies and sinus problems.

Actually, the really big differences between the two countries were around housing and social life. In Canada, less than 2% of students reported being in a fraternity/sorority, compared to almost 10% in the United States. And as for housing, as you can see Americans are vastly more likely to live on-campus and vastly less-likely to live at home. On balance, that means they are incurring significantly higher costs to attend post-secondary education. Also, it probably means campus services are under a lot more pressure in the US than up here.

Figure 6: Student Living Arrangements.

OTTSYD-6

A final point here is with respect to perceptions of campus safety. We all know the differences in rates of violent crimes in the two countries, so you’d expect a difference in perceptions of safety, right? Well, only a little bit, only at night and mostly- off-campus. Figure 7 shows perceptions of safety during the day and at night, on campus and in the community surrounding campus.

Figure 7: Perceptions of safety on campus and in surrounding community.

OTTSYD-7

In conclusion: when it comes to students health and lifestyle, apart from housing there do not appear to many cross-border differences. We seem to be living in a genuinely continental student culture.

May 30

The Resignation of Theresa May

London, May 4th, 2020

British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned her office today after a series of revelations that she had been in the pay of a foreign power since 2009.  Though both parties continue to deny the specifics of the story, a series of leaks from Universities Canada in the Canadian capital of Ottawa made it clear that the British politician had been receiving payments from this country’s universities for over a decade.

One Canadian higher education expert said he was not surprised by the revelations.  Said Toronto-based consultant Alex Usher, “It’s been evident for years that Theresa May was acting contrary to UK national interests, devising and implementing catastrophic immigration policies which resulted in tens of thousands of international students choosing Canadian schools instead of British ones.  It’s worth billions to Canadian universities.  Now we know why.”

Former Universities Canada staff, speaking under condition of anonymity, pinpointed the start of the operation in late 2009.  Shortly after the financial crisis of late 2008, Canadian universities became alarmed at the pressure the economic slump was likely to put on provincial education budgets.  Rather than try to put a lid on their own spending, most preferred to find new sources of revenue in order to keep spending high.  That new source was international students.

“It was kind of a no-brainer” said one source familiar with Universities Canada’s operations, on condition of anonymity.  “University Presidents could go head to head with Deans who wanted new facilities and faculty unions who wanted new hires and job security, or they could go enrol another couple of hundred students from India or the Middle East.  Which would you do?”

The problem, according to recently-obtained documents from Universities Canada, was competition.  Canadian institutions were nowhere near as accomplished at international recruitment as UK universities, and in the summer of 2009 the Canadian government had blindsided the sector by de-funding the Canadian Education Centre Network.  The question was how to overcome the competition.

Normally, Canadian attention would have focussed on Australia, traditionally the most aggressive international student recruiter.  But earlier that year news broke in Australia about racist attacks on Indian students in Melbourne.  That was potentially a boost for Canada as a destination, but there were fears that UK institutions might scoop up all these students instead.  That’s when a plan was hatched to undermine the UK as an international student demonstration.

“The pieces all just fell into place,” said the source.  “Universities Canada had a new President (Paul Davidson) who wanted to try new approaches to public policy.  And you had the Brown government in London that was self-destructing, likely to be replaced by a ridiculously inexperienced government led by David Cameron.  Subversion seemed like the obvious way to go.”

Universities’ Canada initial scouting on the Tories led them to believe that May was the likeliest choice for Home Office minister under a new Conservative government.  “Immigration and security were clearly going to be important files for the Conservatives to shore up their right flank and they needed a steady hand at the tiller.  Osborne was clearly going to be Chancellor, Hague was a shoo-in for Foreign Secretary, whilst Gove and Duncan-Smith had pet interests in other areas.  Basically, that left May.”

Though details on the meetings remain vague, at some point Universities Canada approached May and offered a deal: substantial sums of cash in return for adopting policies guaranteed to undermine the UK as an international student destination.

“We didn’t need to encourage her to take anti-migration positions,” said the anonymous source “because that was already baked into the Tory manifesto.  All we asked her to do was implement it in the stupidest way possible, by including students in the net migration targets.  We thought it might be an outlandish ask; turned out she loved the idea and implemented it beyond our wildest dreams.”

Canada saw results quickly.  After the Tories took power in the UK 2010, Canada saw its international student numbers rise quickly.  And, as predicted, the money from these students allowed Canadian institutions to keep spending even as provincial governments limited domestic tuition increases and allowed core funding to erode.

Not all of the success was planned, though.

“We didn’t see Brexit coming” said the Universities Canada source.  “And nor, obviously, did we suspect that the subsequent Conservative leadership race would end up being the comedy festival that it was, or that May would stay in power so long.  But what was really gratifying was that May continued her pro-Canada policies even after becoming Prime Minister, thus providing Canadian universities with billions in extra cash and obviating the need for any restructuring at all.

“Agent May was the most brilliant investment Canadian universities ever made,” said Usher.  “Without her the last decade would have been a lot more painful.  Now that she’s gone and her policies discredited, things are going to get much tougher for us”.

May 25

Big Moves in U.S. Higher Education

The last couple of weeks have seen the unveiling of two massive but interesting strategic gambles taken by a couple of US public universities.  The kind of strategy moves that universities in other countries can only dream about.  I am speaking, of course, about the Purdue’s buy-out of Kaplan University and the University of Arizona’s attempt to create a global set of “microcampuses”.

Let’s start with the Kaplan/Purdue merger/buy-out/service agreement – what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t easy to explain.  Basically, Purdue, a prestigious research university in Indiana, has negotiated a deal in which it will create a new, arms-length (meaning not on the public books and not in receipt of public funding) branch of the institution consisting entirely of the operations of Kaplan University, a private for-profit institution with something of a checkered legal history.  Purdue paid Graham Holdings (former owners of the Washington Post) $1 for the deed to the company, but they keep the operating team (and, crucially, the marketing crew) and Graham gets paid to operate the company for up to thirty years (the university has an opt-out clause after six), sharing in the profits along the way.  So on the one hand you could describe it Kaplan being bought out; on another level, you could describe this as a form of Business Process Outsourcing, with Purdue as Kaplan’s only client.

There are two ways of looking at this.  On the one hand, it could be argued that Purdue is making a big bet on adult and online education and is moving to make itself a player in this area in the quickest way possible (buying off the shelf is way better than DIY).  Purdue gets a national network of campuses with a good technological backbone; Kaplan gets a non-profit status and some of Purdue’s prestige.  What’s not to like?

Two things, really.  The first is that we don’t really know why Purdue is doing this.  It could be that they wat to bring a public, research university ethos to the Kaplan network, but there’s not a lot of evidence for that.  For one thing, Kaplan’s marketing team – the one that ran the company straight into a Massachusetts legal battle over claims of high-pressure selling – is intact.  For another, no one’s ever tried merging two education cultures this distinct.  It doesn’t immediately seem like a marriage made in heaven

Claims that this is in fact a reverse take-over – a privatization of public education – are, I think, overblown.  There’s a reasonable chance quite a lot of good could come from this.  But don’t count out the possibility that this could turn into a disaster, too.  No one’s ever tried something like this before, so it’s hard to say.

The other really interesting and bold move came from the University of Arizona, which announced that it is going to create 25 “microcampuses” around the world capable collectively of teaching about 25,000 students per year.  Though U of A is technically the “senior” institution in the state, in terms of innovation it regularly plays second-fiddle to ASU and its hyperactive President, Michael Crow.

The idea of the microcampus is not to create little branch campuses around the world.  Rather, the idea is to embed spaces within partner universities where the two universities can co-deliver certain programs.  There’s a lot of upside to this: students in the host country (at the moment, mainly in Asia and the Middle East) can access an Arizona degree for about a fifth of what it would cost them to up sticks and study in Tucson, partner universities will benefit financially and academically from a permanent teaching partnership with University of Arizona staff, and Arizona gets global exposure while sharing risk with other parties and avoiding the hassle of actually setting up and managing branch campuses.  And – unlike the Purdue/Kaplan arrangement – it has real backing from U of A staff.  It’s a smart move all around.

You may, like me, occasionally ask yourself: why can’t Canadian universities act like that?  Why don’t they have the gumption to try things that are big, different and global?  Often, when making Canada-US university comparisons the answer is “well, private universities have more money/flexibility”.  But that’s not the case here: Purdue and Arizona are public universities.  There’s no reason that a Dalhousie or U of T couldn’t do the same.

Americans just have more chutzpah, period.  We could use more of it up here.

 

May 19

Free Tuition, Sea of Japan Edition

To Tokyo, where the ruling Liberal Democrats are considering adopting a proposal from a small right-wing party (Nippon Ishin no Kai – roughly, Japan Restoration Party) to enshrine a constitutional right to free tuition.  This is not, it is safe to say, because of any principled attachment to accessible education – the party opposed free secondary education (which the Democratic Party implemented during its brief, mostly hapless, stint in government which ended five years ago) as recently as a couple of years ago, calling it “an unprincipled policy to buy votes”.

So what’s behind Shinzo Abe’s new ploy?  Two things.  First, Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to kick-start Japan’s long-stalled economy have had only middling success.  Free tuition would in effect be another Keynesian stimulus, freeing lots of family savings to be spent on other things.  Now, technically that doesn’t require a constitutional change, but some observers think Abe would not be able to get a free-tuition proposal worth 5 trillion Yen (C$60 billion) through a normal budgetary approval process; a constitutional amendment would make the spending automatic, thus circumventing the budget process.

But the bigger reason is much more Machiavellian.  Abe’s fondest political wish is to alter the Japanese Constitution, written in 1945 by US occupying forces, to remove Article 9, which bans Japan from having armed forces.  Though Abe himself if popular, this proposal is not: since World War II the Japanese have become about as peacefully-minded nation as one can imagine.  And so, Abe is trying to tie a constitutional amendment on free-tuition to a constitutional amendment on the armed forces to sweeten the deal.

A couple of points here.  First, this would be a policy reversal on a massive scale.  As R. Taggart Murphy noted back here Japan deliberately kept tuition, along with land values, high in the postwar period as a form of industrial policy (note: if you are interested in Japan and not reading R. Taggart Murphy, especially his magnificent book Japan: The Shackles of the Past, you’re doing it wrong).  High savings meant low interest rates, which gave Japanese industrialists access to cheap capital, which in turn gave them a big manufacturing cost advantage, and Japan rode this to economic success in the 1960s.  Basically, short term pain for long term gain. Now, Abe wants to reverse this process.

The bigger question, though – and not one I have seen discussed anywhere in the Japanese press – is how on earth one implements a free tuition promise in a country where somewhere between 75 and 80% of all students attend private universities.  Making tuition free at national (public) universities is a cinch, but – as Chile discovered a couple of years ago – trying to do the same with private universities without outright nationalization is kind of difficult.  Fees vary from one institution to another: how would each be compensated in a consistent manner?

There’s something similar going on the other side of the Sea of Japan, where new Korean President Moon Jae-in has promised to halve tuition fees.  This isn’t the first time Koreans have heard such a pledge.  In 2011, months of student protests forced then-President Lee Myung-bak to make a similar pledge; however, in the end nothing was done and fees stayed the same (fee levels in Korea are similar to those in Canada).  But again, it’s not entirely clear how once can effectively deliver on a fee-reduction pledge in a system which is dominated by private universities without partial or outright nationalization, which seems unlikely.

If I had to guess, I’d say Korea’s the likelier to implement policy change because a) I don’t think Article 9 is going anywhere, free tuition or no and b) the Korean government is just a lot better at getting stuff done.  But we’ll see.  Two stories to watch, for sure.

April 11

Populists and Universities, Round Two

There is a lot of talk these days about populists and universities.  There are all kinds of thinkpieces about “universities and Trump”, “universities and Brexit”, etc.  Just the other day, Sir Peter Scott delivered a lecture on “Populism and the Academy” at OISE, saying that over the past twelve months it has sometimes felt like universities were “on the wrong side of history”.

Speaking of history, one of the things that I find a bit odd about this whole discussion is how little the present discussion is informed by the last time this happened – namely, the populist wave of the 1890s in the United States.  Though the populists never took power nationally, they did capture statehouses in many southern and western states, most of whom had relatively recently taken advantage of the Morrill Act to establish important state universities.  And so we do have at least some historical record to work from – one that was very ably summarized by Scott Gelber in his book The University and the People.

The turn-of-the-20th-century populists wanted three things from universities. First, they wanted them to be accessible to farmers’ children – by which they meant both laxer admissions standards and “cheap”.  That didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to increase expenditures on university budgets substantially (though in practice universities did OK under populist governors and legislators); what it meant was they wanted tuition to remain low and if that entailed universities having to tighten their belts, so be it.  And the legacy of the populists lives on today: average state tuition in the US still has a remarkable correlation to William Jennings Bryan’s share of the vote in the 1896 Presidential election.

 

Fig 1: 2014-15 In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896

Populism Graph

 

The second thing populists wanted was more “practical” education.  They were not into learning for the sake of learning, they were into learning for the sake of material progress and making life easier for workers and farmers; in many ways, one could argue that their attitude about the purpose of higher education was pretty close to that of Deng/Jiang-era China.  And to some extent they were pushing on an open door because the land-grant universities – particularly the A&Ms – were already supposed to have that mandate.

But there was a tension in the populists’ views on curriculum.  They weren’t crazy about law and humanities programs at state universities (too much useless high culture that divided the masses from the classes), but they did grasp that an awful lot of people who were successful in politics had gone through law and humanities programs and – so to speak – learned the tricks of the trade there (recall that rhetoric was one of the seven Liberal arts which still played a role in 19th century curricula).  And so, there was also concern that if public higher education were made too vocational, its beneficiaries would still be at a disadvantage politically.  There were various solutions to this problem, not all of which were to the benefit of humanities subjects, but the key point was this: universities should remain places where leaders are made.  If that meant reading some Marcus Aurelius, so be it: universities were a ladder into the ruling class, and the populists wanted to make sure their kids were on it.

And here, I think is where times have really changed. The new populists are, in a sense, more Gramscian than their predecessors.  They get that universities are ladders to power for individuals, but they also understand that the cultural function of universities goes well beyond that.  Universities are – perhaps even more so than the entertainment industry – arbiters of acceptable political discourse.  They are where the hegemonic culture is made.  And however much they may want their own kids to get a good education, today’s populists really want to smash those sources of cultural hegemony.

This is, obviously, not good for universities.  We can – as Peter Scott suggested – spend more time trying to make universities “relevant” to the communities that surround them.  Nothing wrong with that.  We can keep plugging away at access: that’s a given no matter who is in power.  But on the core issue of the culture of universities, there is no compromise.  Truth and open debate matter.  A commitment to the scientific method and free inquiry matter.  Sure, universities can exist without these things: see China, or Saudi Arabia.  But not here.  That’s what makes our universities different and, frankly, better.

No compromise, no pasarán.

April 07

CEU and Academic Freedom

Let me tell you about this university in Europe. It’s a small, private institution in which specializes in the humanities and social sciences. It’s run on western lines, and is one of the best institutions in the country for research. And now the Government is trying to shut it down, mainly because it finds the institution politically troublesome.

Think I’m talking about Central European University (CEU) in Budapest? Well, I’m not. I’m talking about the European University of Saint Petersburg (EUSP), which has had its license to operate revoked mainly because of its program of studies on gender and LGBTQ issues. And I’m kind of interested in why we focus on one and not the other.

First, let’s get down to brass tacks about what’s going on at Central European University (CEU). This Budapest-based institution, founded by George Soros 25 years ago during the transition away from socialism, is a gem in the region. No fields of study were more corrupted by four decades of communist rule than the Social Sciences, and CEU has done a stellar job not just in becoming a top-notch institution in its own right, but in becoming a bastion of free thought in the region.

The Hungarian government, which not to put too fine a point on it is run by a bunch of nationalist ruffians, has decided to try to restrict CEU’s operations by legislating a set of provisions which in theory apply to all universities but in practice apply only to CEU. The most important of these provisions basically says that institutions which offer foreign-accredited degrees (CEU is accredited by the Middle States Commission, which handles most accreditation of overseas institutions) have to have a campus in their “home country” in order to be able to operate in Hungary and be subject to a formal bilateral agreement between the “home” government and the Hungarian one (CEU does business on the basis of an international agreement, but it’s between Hungary and the State of New York, not the USA). There is, as CEU’s President Michael Ignatieff (yes, him) says, simply no benefit to CEU to do this: it is simply a tactic to raise CEU’s cost of doing business.

So, as you’ve probably gathered by now, this is not an attack on academic freedom the way we would use that term in the west. We’re not talking about chilling individual scholars here. The ruling Hungarian coalition couldn’t care less what gets taught at CEU: what bothers them is that the institution exists to support liberalism and pluralism. What we’re talking about is something much broader than just academic freedom; it’s about weakening independent institutions in an illiberal state. It’s also about anti-semitism (the right wing in Hungary routinely refer to CEU as “Soros University” so as to remind everyone of the institution’s Jewish founder). Yet somehow, the rallying cry is “academic freedom”, when plain old freedom and liberalism would be much more accurate.

I wonder why we don’t hear cries for academic freedom for EUSP, where in fact the academic angle – the university’ research program in gender and queer studies being targeted by a homophobic state – is much more clear cut. Is it because we reckon Russia is beyond salvation and Hungary is not? That would certainly explain our anemic reaction to increasing restrictions on academic freedom in China (where criticism of government is fine, but criticism of the Communist Party is likely to end extremely badly). It would explain why Turkey has faced essentially no academic consequences (boycotts, etc) for its ongoing purge of academic leaders.

I don’t mean to play the whole “why-do-we-grieve-bombings-in-Paris-but-not-Beirut” game. I get it, some places matter more in the collective imagination than others. But I actually think that CEU’s decision to portray this as an academic freedom issue rather that one of freedom tout court plays a role here. We can get behind calls for academic freedom (particularly when they are articulated by English-speaking academics) because academic freedom is something that is everywhere and always being tested around the edges (yeah, McGill, I’m looking at you). But calls for just plain old “freedom”? or “Liberalism”? The academy seems to get po-mo ickies about those.

Frankly, we need to get less squeamish about this. Academic freedom as we know it in the west does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because of underlying societal commitment to pluralism and liberalism. If we only try to defend the niche freedom without defending the underlying values, we will fail.

So, by all means, let’s support CEU. But let’s not do it just for academic freedom. Let’s do it for better reasons.

April 06

Lessons from Mid-Century Soviet Higher Education

I’ve been reading Benjamin Tromly’s excellent book Making the Soviet Intelligentsia: Universities and Intellectual Life under Stalin and Khrushchev. It’s full of fascinating tidbits with surprising relevance to higher education dilemmas of the here and now. To wit:

1) Access is mostly about cultural capital.

There were times and places where communists waged war on the educated, because the educated were by definition bourgeois. In China during the cultural revolution, or in places like Poland and East Germany after WWII, admission to higher education was effectively restricted to the children of “politically reliable classes”, meaning workers and peasants (if you wondered why urban Chinese parents are so OK with the punishing gaokao system, it’s because however insane and sadistic it seems, it’s better than what came before it).

But in the postwar Soviet Union, things were very different. Because of the purges of the 1930s, a whole class of replacement white-collar functionaries had emerged, loyal to Stalin, and he wanted to reward them. This he did by going entirely the opposite direction to his east European satellite regimes and making access to higher education purely about academic “merit” as measured by exams and the like. The result? By 1952, in a regime with free tuition and universal stipends for students, roughly 80% of students had social origin in the professional classes (i.e. party employees, engineers, scientists, teachers and doctors). The children of workers and farmers, who made up the overwhelming majority of the country’s population, had to make do with just the other 20%.

2)  The middle-class will pull whatever strings necessary to maintain their kids’ class position.

Khrushchev was not especially happy about the development of a hereditary intelligentsia, which made itself out to morally superior because of its extra years of education. Basically, he felt students were putting on airs and needed to be reminded that all that training they were receiving was in order to serve the working class, not to stand above it. And so, in 1958, he tried to shake things up by slapping a requirement on university admissions that reserved 80 per cent of places to individuals who has spent two years in gainful employment. This, he felt, would transform the student body and make it more at one with the toiling masses.

This has some predictably disastrous effects on admissions, as making people spend two years out of school before taking entrance exams tends to have fairly calamitous effects on exam results. But while the measure did give a big leg up to the children of workers and peasants (their numbers at universities doubled after the change, though many dropped out soon afterwards due to inadequate preparation), what was interesting was how far the Moscow/Leningrad elites would go to try to rig the system in their children’s favour. Some would try to get their children into two year “mental labor” jobs such as working as a lab assistant; others would find ways to falsify their children’s “production records”. Eventually the policy was reversed because the hard science disciplines argued the new system was undermining their ability to recruit the best and brightest. But in the meantime, the intelligentsia managed to keep their share of enrolments above 50%, which was definitely not what Khrushchev wanted.

3) Institutional prestige is not a function of neo-liberalism.

We sometimes hear about how rankings and institutional prestige are all a product of induced competition, neo-liberalism, yadda yadda. Take one look at the accounts of Soviet students and you’ll know that’s nonsense. Prestige hierarchies exist everywhere, and in the mid-century Soviet Union, everyone knew that the place to study was Lomonosov Moscow State University, end of story.

Remember Joseph Fiennes’ final monologue in Enemy at the Gates?  “In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts…”. It’s true of universities too. Pecking orders exist regardless of regime type.

4) The graduate labour market is about self-actualization

One of the big selling points of the Soviet higher education system was the claim that “all graduates received a job at the end of their studies”. To the ears of western students from the 1970s onwards, who faced the potential of unemployment or underemployment after graduation, that sounded pretty good.

Except that it didn’t to Soviet students. A lot of those “guaranteed” jobs either took students a long way from their studies they loved (“I trained to be a nuclear scientist and now you want me to teach secondary school?”) or the big cities they loved (“I’m being sent to which Siberian oblast”?) or both. And failure to accept the job that was assigned was – in theory at least – punishable by imprisonment.

Yet despite the threat of punishment, Soviet students found a way to evade the rules. Getting married (preferably to someone from Moscow) was a good way to avoid being sent to the provinces. Many simply deserted their posts and found work elsewhere. And some – get this – enrolled in grad school to avoid a job they didn’t want (would never happen here of course).

The point here being: people have dreams for themselves, and these rarely match up neatly with the labour market, whether that market is free or planned. There’s no system in the world that can satisfy everyone; at some point, all systems have to disappoint at least some people. But that doesn’t mean they will take their disappointment lying down. Dreams are tough to kill.

 

March 28

The Western China Dilemma

The South China Morning Post ran an interesting piece recently on the roll-out of China’s Thirteenth Five-Year Plan for Education.  It suggested that in the central and western regions of the country – that is, the poorer, non-coastal bits – the bulk of the task of educational development , including higher education, is going to fall on the private sector.  And yes, this is communist China we’re talking about.

Now at one level this might look like a smart move.  Across most of East Asia in places like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, the private sector provides the majority of spaces in higher education, so why not China?  And besides, parents are prepared to save vastly more for education in that part of the world and so cost is less of an object.  With the economy slowing, the Chinese government is becoming warier about spending money (at least on non-infrastructure projects), so a shift to a model where educational expansion is driven more by the private sector makes a certain amount of sense, right?

Well, I’m not so sure.  I suspect this is just storing up problems for later.

Educational opportunity is distributed very unevenly in China.  It’s not just that participation rates are much higher in the rich eastern provinces than in the poorer central and Western ones.  It’s also that the most prestigious institutions are concentrated in a relatively few areas, particularly Beijing and Shanghai.  This wouldn’t be a problem if these institutions had control over their own student intake and could accommodate the best and brightest from across the country, but they don’t. Instead, each is required to guarantee that a large majority of its places goes to students from its own region.

As everyone knows, in Asia there are two types of private institutions.  A very few of them – those with histories going back a century or so – are pretty good.  Think Keio and Waseda Universities in Tokyo, or Yonsei and Korea Universities in Seoul.  But the majority are pretty weak academically.  And so, what Beijing is offering to the poorer provinces is a lot of lower-quality education; but absent any big new investments in the public system, they aren’t going to get new access to prestige education, which is what the emerging middle class always wants.

Beijing has tried to deal with this problem by making some provinces – notably Hubei and Jiangsu – give up some of their reserved spots at top universities to allow students from these poorer areas.  As Mike Gow, author of the excellent Daxue blog, noted last year these two provinces were made to give up 26% and 18% of their spots this past fall, mostly for the benefit of Yunnan, Tibet and Guizhou provinces.

This, needless to say, has seriously ticked off parents in Hubei and Jiangsu.  In fact, some observers in Hong Kong suggest that this is leading to a new political consciousness among those  in the regions’ middle classes.  Indeed, one suspects the Party knew that this might be the case when it selected Hubei and Jiangsu as the test sites for these policies rather than the more politically sensitive Beijing and Shanghai regions.

The only way to solve this problem in the long run is to start gradually building up some flagship universities in the underdeveloped west.  But this five-year plan is pushing the party towards a quick-and- dirty approach to education in those areas, not a higher-cost quality approach.  Eventually, that’s going to lead to serious political problems either in the interior regions (if mobility continues to be restricted) or in eastern provinces (if mobility is allowed).

Greater affluence leads to greater competition for status goods like education.  To the extent the Communist Party wishes to maintain popular acquiescence to its rule, it has to satisfy those demands.  As growth slows, that task is getting harder.  Keep watching this space.

March 24

Representing Universities

Some light reading today, after a heavy week.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the political divide between those with higher education and those without. But I want to take you back to a time, where that political divide was made real. A time when universities actually had their own seats in Parliament, non-physical constituencies where the electors were made up entirely of alumni.

The practice of granting universities representation in Parliament seems to originate in Scotland sometime in the late 15th or early 16th centuries; certainly by the time James VI of Scotland took the Crown of England in 1603, it was well established. Upon James’ accession to the throne in London, he created Parliamentary constituencies for both Oxford and Cambridge, and gave each two seats (i.e. they were multi-member constituencies and the top two vote-getters won seats). Oxford’s church connections meant that it reliably delivered Royalist or Tory MPs, and some of the greatest names of the age represented it in Parliament, including Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon. Cambridge, on the other hand, was a hotbed of revolutionary activity and was represented at various points by two of Oliver Cromwell’s sons. Briefly, this system spread to the colonies: in the late seventeenth century William & Mary had a seat in the Virginia legislature.

As university education expanded in the UK, so too did the number of university seats. The University Dublin received a seat at Westminster in 1801 (having previously had a seat in the Irish Parliament). The Scottish universities were not given Westminster seats after the act of union but did receive seats (2 to split between the four of them) in 1868; the University of London was given a seat at the same time. Belfast and the University of Wales were given seats in 1918 as was – very temporarily as it turned out – the National University of Ireland. More interestingly, also in 1918, graduates of all other universities in England were given a combined 3 seats, meaning that in the election of that year, there were a total of 14 seats out of the 707 up for grabs (2% of the total) which were elected solely by university graduates.

There were echoes of this approach outside the UK as well. In Sweden and Finland, for instance, where “estate”-style Parliaments existed well into the nineteenth century, universities received positions in Parliament by virtue of their membership in the clerical estate. Within the British Empire, an attempt to imitate this system died a quick death in Australia (the University of Sydney had a seat in the New South Wales Parliament in one election in the 1870s), but lasted somewhat longer in India.

Elections to these seats were somewhat odd affairs. All alumni of an institution could vote in these elections, and this vote was in addition to their vote as a resident of a particular constituency (readers from British Columbia may remember something similar in that until 1993 business owners could get a second vote in municipal elections if their business was in a different district that their residence). However, to exercise the franchise, voters actually had to come to the university to vote (at some point – I can’t work out when – a postal vote option was added). To accommodate electors, polls were held over several days – usually after the general election. Campaigning was not really “done” and in fact during the voting period candidates were required to stay at least 10 miles away from the university. Of interest to Canadian electoral nerds: voting in multi-member constituencies was done by Single Transferable Vote. Civilization does not appear to have collapsed as a result.

By the twentieth century, these seats still often elected Tories, but it became the custom to elect established academic celebrities or public intellectuals as independents. But their days were numbered: when Labour finally won a majority government in 1945, it abolished all forms of plural representation, and so the last university members of Parliament exited the chamber in 1950.

Curiously, the practice still exists today in the unlikeliest of places. Ireland, which split from the UK in 1922, retained the concept of university constituencies in its Parliament (Dáil) until 1937. Under the new constitution of that year, the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland each received 3 seats in a 60-seat Senate, which they retain to this day. This makes more sense if you understand that the Senate of Ireland is one of the world’s most deeply bizarre legislative bodies, where 100% of the membership is indirectly elected through various corporatist bodies.

Bon weekend.

 

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