So another year ended. This one, few will mourn. Despite their medieval roots, universities fundamentally serve the enlightenment; and the enlightenment, with is emphasis on toleration, progress, science, empiricism, was under attack this year as in no year since 1945. Though higher education itself was not the target of populists’ wrath, the part of the culture we inhabit certainly was. And that could make life pretty uncomfortable over the next few years.
I wrote back here about how the revolt of the mid-west in the US election was about nostalgia for the days when you didn’t need an education to get a full-time job (one can also make a similar argument about the Brexit vote) . That is, in part at least, an indictment of the education system. A significant fraction don’t attend because they hate being in school; another significant fraction don’t attend because they don’t think it provides value. One doesn’t have to accept wilder propositions about the system being “broken” for those two facts to prompt serious thought about how well the education system as a whole is doing its job.
Some have posited that this new revolt of the masses is about inequality and social mobility. Higher education is having some problems in this respect, especially in the United States and the UK. And I don’t think there is much doubt that in America a new form of hereditary upper caste is emerging from increasingly stratified education systems feeding students into (see Lauren Rivera’s quite excellent Pedigree). Canada, thank God, does not face this problem in so virulent a fashion. As Joe Heath pointed out a couple of years ago, the top three Ivy League schools enrol about 0.1% of all undergrads nationally while Canada’s top three schools enrol about 14% of all undergrads nationally. Our bottle-necks are thus wider and that spares us the kind of vicious competition for places in top institutions the way we see south of the border. But let’s not get complacent: there is still a lot more we could and should do in terms of ensuring fair chances for students from non-traditional background.
But there’s also an issue about economic growth here. The fact is that part of the social bargain since the Second World War has been about delivering inclusive growth. Now we haven’t always been very good at that – certainly in the eighties and early nineties there was growth that was perhaps the opposite of exclusive (average and median pay fell in this period, before picking up in the mid-90s and staying positive ever since). The problem right now, is that our economies simply aren’t delivering growth. And sure, part of that is the huge post-financial crisis debt hangover in the US, and part of it is due to changing demographics, and part of it is due to a whole bunch of other reasons around having picked the low-hanging fruit of productivity gains (do read Robert Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth over the hols if you get a chance). But universities the world over have grabbed a whole lot of public money over the past couple of decades by selling the public the notion that that research = productivity = growth. And so it’s reasonable to ask: where’s the growth? Now, sure, there’s no good counter-factual that allows us to look at what growth would have been like had investments in research not been made. Maybe things would have been worse without it. But the fact that there isn’t a slam-dunk positive story that everyone can recognize makes the sector vulnerable.
The populist case against higher education isn’t that hard to construct. Universities spend billions on research without much proof that it leads to growth. Spots at elite institutions tend to go to children of the elite. Full-time academics are mostly in the top 10% of income distribution and a non-negligible proportion in the top 1% yet for some reason in Canada we see at least one faculty strike per year because as a group they believe themselves to be underpaid.
I know some of you hate-read this blog because I’m always on about unsustainable finances and say not-nice things about how institutions spend their money. But higher education needs public support. If the public starts to get the idea that higher education is not good value for money, or worse, that it does not serve the greater public good, that support will erode and with it the ability to support all the activities they currently undertake.
In Canada, we aren’t there yet, and with luck we never will be. But remaining in the public’s good graces takes constant vigilance. Pay attention to the dollars and cents. Pay attention to outputs and impacts. Do not take the public for granted. In a populist age, nothing could be more dangerous.
That’s it from me for the term. Normal service will resume January 9th, though you will probably hear from me once next week if, as is widely rumoured, the Finance Minister’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth puts out a report on “skills and innovation” which is as dumb as a bag of hammers. As always, it’s been a pleasure hearing from so many of you over the past few months. If you have any thoughts on how to improve the blog, things you’d like to hear more of/less of, or just general feedback, I’d love to hear it. Just write me.