Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Worldwide PSE

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

June 08

Getting a Global Common Data Set Off the Ground

How could a global common data set (CDS) come into existence? Here are a few considerations:

In addition to improving accuracy and comparability, common data sets come into existence for two reasons. The first is to save money by limiting the number of data requests flying in from every yahoo wanting to create his or her own ranking. The second, less obvious reason, is that the creation of an open-access data platform lowers the barriers to entry for new rankers. It’s a way of busting data monopolies.

For that reason, it’s unlikely that a commercial entity is going to lead the way, except as a contract provider of technical assistance. The real impetus is going to have to come from institutions themselves. But which institutions?

An initiative backed by schools from a single country or region probably wouldn’t get very far, which is why I’m not sure U-Multirank is the way forward. But formal global bodies aren’t the answer either. IAU and UNESCO have too many members wishing to play King Canute to the rising tide of rankings for them to be an option.

Ad-hoc coalitions of institutions are possible: if you were to throw together some interested IR people from (say) Australia, Canada, Singapore and Norway, you could see it happening. But structure matters in collaborations, which is why a meeting of minds at two or three of the big existing alliances like the International Alliance of Research Universities or Universitas 21 would seem like the likeliest source of a successful project. In terms of optics, locating project management outside the U.S. and U.K. would be preferable.

The keys to success will be flexibility and cost-effectiveness. If a Global CDS asks for too much data from its members, or asks for data which is too difficult to obtain or manipulate, it will never catch on. Things like research output, student survey results and more exotic ideas like “artistic output” need to be sidelined for the moment (or at least relegated to optional data fields outside the “core”).

The important thing will be the core variables: money, students, faculty. Those are things anyone can count, but which for various reasons are compiled differently around the globe. If these elements can be well-defined and well-managed, the resulting success will bring in new members and, over time, an appetite to increase the project’s scope.

Basically, creating a genuinely globally CDS is a ton of work. Thomson-Reuters or U-Multirank would have to get someone really ticked off for people to think it worth the investment. But the proliferation of university alliances are reducing the transaction cost of this kind of collaborative work every day. This could come sooner than you think.

June 07

What Would a Global Common Data Set Look Like?

The discussion Kris Olds and I started a couple of days ago (see here and here) about a global common data set seems to have generated quite a bit of discussion, so I thought I would flesh out two sets of thoughts regarding what a Global CDS would need to look like – today: content; tomorrow: governance.

Start with first principles on content: it needs to be common enough that most institutions around the world are able to produce it. That necessarily means that, to start at least, the data will be skewed towards things that are relatively easy to count, not necessarily things that matter.

What would qualify? Student data, for one thing – graduate and international student numbers are always interesting, but in terms of student-teacher ratios, not just numbers but total course hours should be calculated. Academic staff, for another – though, as per yesterday’s discussion, one would need to set out data for a number of different types of faculty (full-time, adjunct, etc.) to allow for different types of comparisons. Strictly defining these different categories and ensuring all institutions can distinguish properly between them will be paramount. And, of course, as with students the faculty data shouldn’t just be raw numbers – course hours, too, are important.

Financial data will be important, as well – income from various sources (especially research income) will need to be included, as will some expenditures like libraries. But because universities in different parts of the world have radically different abilities to control their own budgets this data will need to be complemented with information about various dimensions of university autonomy (the recent European Universities Association survey on autonomy is a good model).

Beyond that, it might get pretty thin. There just isn’t enough university-produced data in common across international boundaries to go much further. Within Europe, for instance, there might be some desire to bring indicators such as “regional joint research projects” which seemed to work in the U-Multirank project; similarly, North American schools might want NSSE or CLA data. Leaving room for optional indicators might be a smart way to go.

More speculatively, there might be ways to combine data from national student satisfaction surveys in places like Canada, Germany and Taiwan into a single global, super student-indicator; and there might also be interest in including various forms of bibliometric information (though this can easily be done outside a CDS as well) – but now we’re talking about things a long way down the road.

So how might someone create and manage such a possibly unwieldy global database project? Tune in tomorrow.

May 14

New Possibilities in African Higher Education

As I’m working in Ghana this month, I thought I’d share a few stories about higher education here in Africa. What’s occupying my thoughts these days is the educational production function (yes, really).

The most amazing thing “western” education systems ever did was to get students to learn on their own, thus reducing both the number of professors required to teach a given number of students and, as a result, the cost of education. Teaching students to “learn how to learn” thus isn’t just cant – it’s the heart of the most important productivity revolution in world education.

But in Africa, libraries are virtually non-existent and until recently electronic resources were inaccessible. Since the tools to “learn to learn” didn’t exist, the only way “learning” can occur is in the classroom. Hence the need for African students to spend 25 to 30 hours in the classroom each week, which is why African professors teach more than ours do.

Now, though, there’s the potential of adopting the western education production function. The libraries are still empty, of course, but the ICT revolution has put an incredible amount of information and resources at the fingertips of anyone with an iPad or laptop, and the relentless fall in computing costs means an increasing number of students are able to access that technology. Which means – in theory at least – they could move to a cheaper, less labour-intensive and generally more “western” university system any time now. That would be a major development, as it makes it possible to expand the higher education system at much lower cost. In a continent with a burgeoning youth population and soaring demand for education, such a game-changer is desperately needed.

The problem is that the new regime reduces the need for professors in the short term (in the longer-term, the effect is probably neutral as demand for education rises). Predictably, therefore, there aren’t a lot of institutions stepping forward to use these new technologies to change the way they deliver education. The mostly church-run private university sector won’t take up the opportunity because, being prestige-seekers like everyone else, they are mainly concerned with trying to ape whatever the most venerable university in the region is doing. And African governments won’t push the idea because reducing employment – even temporarily – causes unrest, and the Arab Spring has made most governments very risk-averse.

The likely best option to catalyze this education revolution is a foreign provider, unencumbered by existing contracts and bringing the prestige of being “western” to come in and establish this model, and hope it spreads by example. There is enormous opportunity to do good here – but will anyone step forward to make it happen?

May 11

Hooked on School

What do Canadian students do when they’ve finished their university studies? And how do they differ from students in other parts of the world? We recently had the opportunity to examine country-level graduate surveys around the world.

Now, there are important caveats – no two countries conduct the same survey among the same exact population of graduates at the exact same time (and international data agencies like the OECD restrict most of their graduate analysis to fairly basic indicators, such as employment rates and earnings). Fortunately, centrally-coordinated surveys in Canada, Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom permit meaningful international comparisons of life after a Bachelor’s degree.

So how do Canadian Bachelor’s degree-holders compare? For one thing, those who decide to work (excluding those who work and study part-time) report the second-highest earnings among the countries examined here, along with the U.S. – around $45,000 annually.* German students with a “traditional degree” report earnings of CAD $55,000.

More interesting, though, is the proportion of Canadian graduates who pursue further education. According to Statistics Canada’s National Graduates Survey, 42% of Bachelor’s degree-holders from the class of 2005 had pursued a new course of study by 2007; only 62% of Canadians were working (some did both). No one, other than German graduates of “new” degree programs, studies as much after completing an undergraduate degree than Canadians – even those who were surveyed in other countries much longer after graduation were less likely to return to school.

Of the 42% of Canadian graduates who went on to pursue an additional program (the number of students who pursued any kind of schooling, either within the context of a program or one or more individual courses, is closer to 75%), only 16% had completed their studies when surveyed two years after graduation.

Of course, not all students are as gung-ho about pursuing post-graduate education. Looking at graduates at all levels, while 62% of life-science graduates and 56% of humanities graduates went on to pursue another program of study, the same was true for less than one-third of architecture and engineering students. Education graduates were most likely (64%) to pursue individual courses after graduation; however fewer than 20% undertook a structured program.

Whether a Bachelor’s degree doesn’t confer the benefits Canadians students anticipate or whether it cultivates a thirst for learning that can only be quenched in the classroom isn’t clear. What is certain, though, is that most Canadian undergraduates aren’t ready to stop studying.

* Australian graduates actually reported higher earnings – $61,000 vs. $45,000 in Canada and the U.S., but they were surveyed five years after graduation, compared to one to two years in Canada and the States.

May 08

The Shape of Things to Come

Sit down before you look at this graph, which shows new investment in higher education in 2011. The data comes from our annual survey of 40 countries around the world which make up over 90% of all enrolments and scientific production.

Change in Public Expenditures on Higher Education, 2011

The basic story here is this: in the OECD, we’ve finally hit what I call “Peak Higher Education”; the point beyond which we can no longer expect any increase in public investment in higher education. Between shrinking youth populations and catastrophic fiscal pressures across most of these countries, there simply isn’t room for expenditures to grow the way they have over most of the past forty years. At the moment, the downward pressure is mostly coming from the United States, and there are some countervailing pressures from newer OECD members (Turkey, Israel and Chile all saw double-digit increases) – but even in the medium term this trend looks unstoppable.

But outside the OECD it’s a whole different story, where the country average increase was 8.4%. Now, some of that was due to inflation, which tends to be much higher in these fast-developing countries than it is here. And the average hides the fact that there is movement in both directions: funding drops in places like Ukraine and Pakistan topped 20%. But the big hitters are furiously increasing spending; in India, a 21% real increase (albeit from a pretty tiny base) and in China it’s 10%. Small players aren’t being left behind, either; Singapore’s increase was close to 30% last year.

Now, we don’t need to get all Lou Dobbs about this. It’s not as though the rise of universities in other parts of the world poses some sort of existential threat to our own schools – the spread of education and knowledge like this is a great thing. But let’s not ignore some of the obvious ramifications. It means increased competition for top faculty, which will drive up prices at the top end of the scale. It means both increased sources of and competition for prestige, which will lead many universities to expand their activities into some very distant parts of the world.

It’s not going to all happen overnight. Many of these countries are starting from a very long way behind our universities in terms of resources, so even with very large annual increases, it could be a couple of decades before they reach western levels of expenditure (and because prestige is a stock rather than a flow, it will take another couple of decades again before institutions in these countries will be seen as broadly comparable to ours).

It will happen; it’s just a question of time. Many more years like 2011, and it could happen a lot sooner than you think.

April 10

A View from Abroad

I’m in Japan this week, and amid all the futuristic buildings, hi-tech, and gloriously efficient public transit, one is continually tempted to ask: how much of this has to do with Japanese higher education? In the Canadian higher education sector we keep telling ourselves how central universities are to economic growth and innovation process, so by that logic, a gleaming technological marvel like Japan must have some kick-ass research universities, mustn’t it?

Actually, no. Sure, Japan has a few top schools – Tokyo and Kyoto, for instance, compare with most any public university in the world. But overall, their universities significantly underperform relative to their peers in terms of research production. Serious scientific research in Japan is much more likely to happen in corporate settings than in academic ones (the Bell Labs equivalents here were never dismantled). Since the centrality of university research to innovation is, to a large extent, an inverse function of business productivity, universities simply aren’t so crucial where the business sector is actually on the ball.

Well then, Japanese universities must be turning out loads of skilled labour, right? And since it’s such a high-tech country, they must be miles ahead of us in terms of STEM subjects.

Still, no. About 17% of university enrolments in Japan are in engineering, which is much higher than in Canada, but only about 2% are in the sciences, which is much, much lower. As a result, Japan’s overall STEM enrolments are slightly lower than ours. And there are also serious complaints about quality, with universities here being called “Ivory Basements,” a four-year party-filled hiatus between the rigours of high-school and finding a job. Some of these complaints have tapered off a bit recently after major reforms under Prime Minister Koizumi, but there is a long way to go.

(One area where Japanese universities really are unique? Marketing. I’m 100% sure that in no other country would Peter Rabbit be considered a suitable subject for an institutional branding campaign, as he is at Saitama’s Daito Bunka University.)

Here’s the crux of it: countries actually can get by pretty well without massive university systems. Germany and Switzerland send very few people to university yet have quite advanced technical economies. The optimal mix of education can differ substantially from one country to another based on the range of industries one possesses. That’s not to say that you could just tear down our universities and expect the same results as Germany or Japan – it’s just to say that their capabilities and optimal role is heavily circumscribed by their institutional environment.

Universities aren’t inherently central to economic development. It’s all down to context.

March 15

Global Models in Indigenous Higher Education

Given how excited people are these days about using international experience in higher education, it’s odd how little attention has been paid to the different models of indigenous higher education (globally, the term “indigenous” is preferred to “Aboriginal”). So, here goes:

There are basically three strategies in terms of promoting indigenous higher education. You can give a helping hand to individual indigenous students, financially or otherwise. You can give mainstream institutions a makeover so as to be more accommodating of indigenous culture. Or you can create new indigenously-controlled institutions.

The first model is the dominant one in Canada – in addition to dedicated financial support programs like PSSSP, there has come to be a “standard model” of institutional supports, as well. Australia has put more emphasis on the financial side, with its Austudy program. New Zealand is less generous financially, but does provide dedicated services in its universities, similar to Canada. In the U.S., this model is rare, though it does exist in places like the University of Alaska.

The second model is tough to execute because of the degree of cultural change involved. However, it does happen in Canada, at least where Aboriginal populations are relatively large: the use of Aboriginal cultural systems like Laurentian’s teepee or UVic’s First Nations House, the concentrations of Aboriginal scholars in Manitoba and Saskatchewan universities, etc. It’s rare in the United States, though Hawai’i-Manoa is an honourable exception. Australia appears to be somewhere between the United States and Canada. New Zealand is considerably more advanced than Canada.

The third model is perhaps the most interesting: separate, indigenously-controlled institutions. The U.S. and New Zealand are the most enthusiastic here: the former has a large network of Tribal Colleges, and the latter has a trio of “wanangas” – technical institutes which also offer a few degree programs. Australia has a single institute – the Batchelor Institute in Alice Springs.

In Canada, we’re a bit schizo on this. We do have publicly-funded, Aboriginally-controlled institutions in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. In the rest of the country what we have is a scattering of Aboriginal institutes, which are patchily funded and which are often little more than program brokers for other institutions offering distance programs. Large parts of the country – notably Ontario – are without a proper Aboriginally-controlled institution. That’s not all down to unsympathetic policymakers; in Ontario in particular, regional politics among First Nations have been a major factor preventing a single institution emerging as a potential FNUC-equivalent.

But it wouldn’t hurt to start sketching out the conditions – presumably rather strict ones – under which some of our Aboriginal institutes might “graduate” to becoming publicly funded institutions. There are models all over the world of successful indigenously-controlled institutions; there’s no reason Canada couldn’t benefit from more of them, too.

March 01

The Economics of Non-Traditional Degree Programs

There was an interesting report out of the U.K.’s University and College Union (roughly the equivalent of our CAUT) last week, describing how the number of English degree programs (which, confusingly for us, are called “courses” over there) has fallen by a quarter in the last six years. The back-and-forth in the media between talking heads on this story was quite amusing, with a leftish union rallying around the banner of “choice” and a right-wing government claiming that the raw number of students and graduates matters more. Any old rhetorical port in a storm, I guess.

But it’s interesting to take a quick look at the stats behind this story:

2006 2012
Total Degree Courses 70,052 51,116
Total “Primary” Degree Courses 7,002 6,024


Now “primary” degrees are what we might call “traditional,” single-subject degrees – history, physics, etc. Those are down by about 14%, and – despite what you may believe if you’ve been reading Stefan Collini in the Times Literary Supplement over the last couple of years – it’s down slightly more in the STEM fields than in humanities or social sciences.

But let’s focus on that massive gap between total courses and primary courses. In 2006, primary programs only made up one-tenth of all programs – the other nine-tenths were joint programs between disciplines, interdisciplinary programs and specialized programs nestled within a single discipline (e.g., urban history, development economics, etc). And these were cut at twice the rate of primary programs, meaning that 95% of all courses axed were non-primary.

There are two reasons for this, I think. The first is obviously political – precisely because these programs are by nature small and have few staff associated with them, they are easy pickings come budget time. But the second is more straightforwardly economic. The cost/benefit of these programs is much worse than commonly realized.

This is one of the better points made by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovative University. On paper, the costs of these programs look trivial: you borrow staff from “real” departments, maybe hire an administrator part-time – what could be cheaper? But the real costs lie in the graduation requirements: students must take particular courses, some of which may have very low enrolments. And, of course, when you’re paying professors $150,000 per year and your income depends on enrolments, low-enrolment courses really hurt the bottom line.

So this U.K. data doesn’t necessarily suggest wild cutting (the number of academic staff actually increased by about 5% over this period). Rather, it suggests an attempt at pruning marginal programs. No doubt the results are not always pretty; but it’s an example Canadian institutions need to start considering for themselves.

January 31

U.K. Tuition Fees: Early Results Are In

Unless you’ve been in a cave for the last 18 months, you’ve probably heard that the U.K. government is overhauling policies on student fees and government support in England and Wales (Scotland has its own arrangements). Public support for arts and social science students was eliminated, institutional grants were cut by 41% and, most strikingly, the limit on tuition fees was raised from £3,350/year to £9,000/year.

Since announcing the broad outlines of the policy fifteen months ago, the Cameron government has gone through some fairly bizarre twists and turns on certain details of the funding and tuition policies. At the end of the day, though, the final average tuition for the coming year came to £8,354, or about a 150% increase from last year.

For those of us who watch tuition fees for a living, this was a big experiment. Data from the competitive environment of the United States tends to show that even small changes in tuition fees can have significant effects on institutional enrolment, though usually through shifts from one institution to another rather than on aggregate enrolment. Large across-the-board tuition increases which affect the minimum price for all forms of higher education, on the other hand, presumably have more severe effects. But these are rarer and harder to observe, so this one-time “big-bang” in the UK seems like an ideal opportunity to examine the pure effects of a tuition hike.

Well, final application data was released yesterday.  Among 18 year-olds, this £5,000 (roughly $8,000) tuition increase has lowered applicant levels by just 3.6%, or about 8,000 students. Among older students – who tend to have less time to earn back their investments in higher education – the effect was significantly larger (on the order of 11%). Now, even a single student turned away for financial reasons is too many. But if an $8,000 net tuition increase only generates a net impact of less than 3% on traditional-aged students, and only 7% overall, that strongly suggests that tuition fees are not, on their own, a major deterrent to study.

So the next time someone suggest that the $250 tuition fee increase your institution is planning might have major effects on enrolment, there’s a simple reply. Such an increase would be 1/32nd of what was introduced in England and Wales. Assuming linear effects, a $250 increase might therefore be expected to reduce overall enrolments by between 0.2% and 0.25%. On an incoming class of, say, 3,000 undergraduates, that’s between six and eight students. We’d guess it’s not beyond anyone’s wit to design some student aid to offset that kind of effect.

U.K. tuition policy isn’t something we’d endorse, but clearly it’s not as harmful as some would lead us to believe, either. Real life’s just not that simple.

January 25

Distinct Missions

Why are Canadian universities so scared of acting differently from one another?  Why does no one want a niche? I’m not just talking about their cookie-cutter mission statements here, which seem to involve adding the words “research” and “excellence” to the output of a random word generator. I’m talking about the cookie-cutter ways they go about their daily business. In marketing-speak: they have little or no brand personality.

It’s not as though cool niche missions are that hard to dream up. Here’s two:

The “Best Jobs” University.  Giving employment guarantees and talking up graduate employment rates are so 90s; with a shrinking labour force, the issue isn’t going to be whether graduates get jobs, it’s what kind of jobs they will get. So why shouldn’t some university take it on as a mission to ensure that its graduates get the best jobs?

Think about it: if that were your mission, your professors would be bound to spend a lot more time talking to employers not just about “what they want,” but really working with them on a day-to-day basis to understand what skills students need to be more effective in the workplace. It would mean spending lots of money on placement officers and on career services. And it would mean a serious commitment to tracking and measuring how students do, and taking their feedback about what helped them and what didn’t to heart. It wouldn’t be easy, but at the end of the day, you’d be able to tell a real, quantifiable story about how your graduates succeed.

The Character University. One’s university experience is to a very large degree conditioned by one’s classmates. That’s why selective U.S. universities subject prospective students to a rigorous interview process; to make sure they are getting not just good students, but the “right” ones. Canadian universities instead choose to make their admissions decisions based entirely on grades, in part because they feel it’s an easy place to cut costs.

Two words: false economy.

So why not reverse the process and put character at the heart of an admissions process? It’s quite possible: the Loran Awards do it year after year and they manage to pick one future Rhodes Scholar each year in the process. Sure, it would mean spending more on admissions, but involving alumni as American schools do would keep costs down. And the benefits are enormous: your students would be a lot more interesting and rewarding to teach (filtering out the whiners and grade-grubbers would be central to the process), and moral fibre would be your selling point.

These ideas aren’t cost- or difficulty-free, of course. But they’d pay for themselves pretty quickly by attracting better students, producing happier alumni and raising public profile.

Any takers?

Page 20 of 22« First...10...1819202122