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Tag Archives: Australia

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.

November 25

The Australian Experiment in Cutting Red Tape

One thing everybody hates is red tape – especially pointless reporting requirements which take up time, money and deliver little to no value.  Of late, Canadian universities have been talking more and more about various types of reporting burden and how they’d really like being freed from some of it.  For those interested in this subject, it’s instructive to see how the issue has been handled in Australia.

The peak university body in Australia (called – appropriately – Universities Australia) began the drumbeat on this issue about six years ago.  They commissioned an independent third party (self-interested note to university associations: 3rd party investigations give your policy positions credibility!) to provide an authoritative report on Universities’ reporting requirements.  The report went into exhaustive detail in terms of how much staff time and IT resources institutions devote to each of 18 separate data reports required by the commonwealth government.  What they found was that the median Australian institution was spending 2,000 days of staff time and $800-900,000 per year on these reports, roughly a third of which went on collecting data on research publications.

Now, that may not sound like much.  But that’s only data going to the federal ministry responsible for higher education.  It did not include reporting costs related to quality assurance bodies and submissions to the national higher education regulator(s).  It did not include the costs of research assessment exercises (and certainly didn’t count the cost of applying to various funding agencies for money, which is a whole other nightmare story in and of itself).  It did not count regulation related to state governments (Australia is a federation but in contrast to Canada, higher education is mostly but not exclusively a federal responsibility), or anything relating to its required reporting to the charities commission, reporting on government compacts (similar to Ontario’s MYAs), health agencies, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, professional registration bodies….the list goes on.

The point here is not that institutions should be free of reporting requirements.  If we want transparency and good system stewardship, we need institutions to be providing a lot of data – in many cases much more data than they currently provide.  The point is that nobody is co-ordinating those data requests and making any effort to reduce overlap.  If you’re getting data/reporting requests from a dozen or more different bodies, it would be useful if those bodies spoke to each other once in awhile.  Also, as a general principle, or keep regulatory requests to what is absolutely needed rather than what regulators might just like to know (appallingly, the Government of Ontario last year attached a rider to a childcare bill gave itself the right to take any piece of data held by an Ontario university or college, including physical and mental health records, something which in my line of work is known as “as far away from good practice as humanly possible”).

There were, I think, two key suggestions which came out of this exercise. One was that they government should be required to post a comprehensive annual list and timetable of institutional reporting.  This was less for the universities’ benefit than the government’s: it helps to be actively reminded about other people’s reporting burdens.  The second was a very sensible suggestion about how a streamlining of requirements could be handled by the creation of a national central data repository.  The design of this system is shown in the figure below.

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This is similar in spirit to the way North American universities have created “common data sets” in reaction to requests for information from rankers and guide-book makers; where it differs is that it brings data customers into the heart of the data collection process, and it explicitly requires them to put data out into statistical reports for public consumption.  In other words, part of the quid pro quo for more streamlined reporting is more transparent reporting.  Which is a lesson I think Canadian institutions should take to heart.

The results of this were mixed.  The government held its own hearings on regulation which led to significant cuts to the main higher education regulator, TEQSA, which left the university somewhat relieved (they got a much lighter-touch regulator as a result) and somewhat horrified (while they liked a light touch for themselves, they were panicked at the prospect of light touch regulation for the country’s many private providers).  As for the report commissioned by Universities Australia, while the Government responded to the review in a very positive manner  very little in terms of concrete change seems to have happened.

Still, these reports change the tone of the discussion around higher education at least for a time.  It would be useful to try something similar here – especially in Ontario.

April 07

Innovation to Watch at the University of Sydney

Australian universities seem to do “Big Change” a lot better than universities elsewhere.  A few years ago, the University of Melbourne radically overhauled its entire curriculum in the space of about two years partly to create a more North American-like distinction between undergraduate and professional degrees and partly to reduce degree clutter by winnowing the number of different degrees from over a hundred to just six.  (For a refresher, I wrote about this back here).

If you read press reports about the University of Sydney’s new strategic plan (read the full document here,  it’s completely worth it) you might think Sydney is just aping Melbourne: it’s culling of degrees from 120 to 20, mostly by wiping out five-year “double degrees”, and also reducing the number of faculties from 16 to 6.

But the reduction in the number of degrees is actually a much less interesting story than what Sydney plans to do in terms of its curriculum.  From 2018, every program is to have two courses in third-year: one to integrate and apply disciplinary skills and another to apply disciplinary knowledge and skills in context.  Every degree will culminate in a final-year project or practicum.  Every program will have cultural competency embedded within it, and support for international studies will rise so that (hopefully) the proportion of students with an international experience will rise from 19% to 50%.  A strong framework to support career transitions will also be set up. Involving both curricular and co-curricular efforts

Here’s the most interesting bit: And an entirely new “open learning environment” will be created within the university, which will provide short, on-demand courses in areas such as entrepreneurship, ethics, project management, leadership (you know, all the employability-related skills universities usually claim students pick up by osmosis).  Some of these courses will be online, while some will be blended online/workshop; some will be non-credit and some will be small-credit. 

Did I mention they are going to develop a university-wide approach to measuring how desired graduate qualities such as disciplinary depth, interdisciplinary effectiveness, communication ability and cultural competence have been attained?  Yes, really.

What makes this kind of change deeply impressive – and potentially highly significant – is that it is not coming from a second-tier, ambitious institution trying to catch attention by doing something new.  This is the country’s oldest university.  This is a big, old prestigious institution taking big serious steps to actually change the undergraduate degree structure in order to provide students with better skills without sacrificing academic rigour.  It’s a research university that cares enough about undergraduate learning outcomes that it will measure them in some way beyond graduation rates and immediate employment rates. 

This is cutting edge stuff.  It may even be a world first.  We should all hope it is not the last; this kind of approach needs to spread quickly.

February 08

(#fake)Tenure, Governance, and Academic Freedom

If you follow higher education news from south of the border, one scrap you’ll probably have noticed over the past year or so is the one over tenure in Wisconsin.  Until recently, tenure provisions at the University of Wisconsin were inscribed in state law.  Last year, Wisconsin Governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Scott Walker decided to remove tenure protection, leaving the University’s Board of Regents to inscribe it in their own rules.  At the same time, the Governor gave university management more power, free from the scrutiny of Senate and other shared-governance arrangements, to close or modify programs.  Put these two things together, add the fact that public sector unions in Wisconsin are legally forbidden from bargaining over anything other than wages, and you have a situation where it’s a lot easier to get rid of professors than it used to be.

So far, so clear.  For obvious reasons, professors at Wisconsin are upset about this, and many are calling this new system #faketenure because they believe that any tenure protection given through new Board of Regents rules is effectively undermined by the new management powers to eliminate or modify programs.  This, they say, means that there will be a form of academic chill at Wisconsin, with people afraid to voice controversial opinions or undertake challenging research for fear of political backlash.

Now, I get why most professors would prefer the old regime to the new, but the idea that challenging or difficult research can only take place in environments where tenure is ironclad and all program modifications can only take place with faculty agreement is simply not true.  If this is genuinely your position, you have to have a good answer to the question: “what about the UK and Australia?”

In the late-1980s, the Thatcher government in the UK simply abolished tenure for anyone hired after 1987.  People were still hired on permanent contracts (though as in the US and Canada, massification also led to an increase in the use of part-time contracts), but there was nothing stopping institutions from making people redundant by chopping whole departments – as is the case in Wisconsin.  Of course, unions can deter this to some degree by insisting on buyouts, redeployments, etc (as indeed Canadian unions do, too – see here for more on this).  But essentially, the conditions in the UK are pretty close to what some in Wisconsin are calling #faketenure, and yet one doesn’t often encounter the claim that UK researchers are doing ideologically cowed, or less daring research.

It’s the same thing in Australia.  Universities give out “permanent” positions somewhat more quickly than our universities – their equivalent of “tenure-track” is maybe half as long as it is here – but academics are much more actively managed (a fall in publications will bring a rise in teaching load relatively quickly), and large-scale institutional restructuring is much more common (La Trobe University, for instance, more or less slashed its entire economics department a couple of years ago).  Again, possibly not a model to follow if you’re a prof, but can anyone really claim that Australian academics are less free, less bold, less daring than their counterparts elsewhere?

To put this simply: people make a lot of universal declaratory statements about tenure and academic freedom.  For the most part, they aren’t true.  There is lots of top-notch research – even in the social sciences and humanities, where a lot of the most controversial stuff is concentrated – that occurs in places without the specific North American context of tenure and shared governance.  This is undeniable.

Now, this isn’t to say that removing those kinds of protections over here in North America wouldn’t have an effect.  One of the reasons the loss of protection in Wisconsin is cause for concern is because Wisconsin’s Board of Regents is increasingly a partisan body, with its members entirely appointed by the Governor, and it’s not that far-fetched to imagine them going after specific programs or even specific professors.

But that’s precisely the point: claims about the effects/benefits/drawbacks of any particular constellation of policies on tenure and academic freedom need to take very close account of the legal and political context in which they are operating.  Claiming that tenure *has* to be inscribed in a collective bargaining agreement, or that it *has* to be inscribed in legislation are equally incorrect; the point is that there are many possible equilibria on tenure, governance, and academic freedom.  Claiming the opposite is simply evidence of a fairly limited imagination about how higher education can be run.

November 20

Quick Takes on Student Aid Around the World

Three quick hits:

Islamic Student Loans in the UK.  Loans and Muslim students are always a hot topic.  That’s partly because there are a number of Muslim students who don’t like the idea of loans with interest (not very many, but enough to be noticeable), and partly because certain soi-disant “progressive” white kids like to use Muslims’ reticence about interest as an excuse to argue that loans are effectively racist, and therefore should all be replaced by grants (yes, really).  So it’s interesting to note that buried in all the hoopla of the recent UK Green paper on higher education is a firm commitment from the UK government that it will move ahead with offering Shariah-compliant loans, making it the first non-majority Muslim country to do so (Malaysia has had them for some time).

Now this isn’t wholly surprising; the government indicated about a year ago that it was headed in this direction, after a series of public consultations on the matter.  The results of that consultation are here, and anyone interested in student aid should read from about page 6 on, because it goes into some useful detail about how to design Shariah-compliant loans that are neither more nor less generous than “mainstream” loans.  In the end, it recommends a “takaful” system, which is basically a co-operative lending fund in which participants mutually insure each others’ liabilities (n.b., for true student aid nerds: the mutuality aspect actually makes this system somewhat resemble the Yale Tuition Postponement option, which I described back here).

I said four years ago that the Government of Canada should consider offering Shariah-compliant loans.  Now that the UK government, in conjunction with Islamic banking experts, has done the heavy lifting on this, it’s time to pick up that torch.

How Difficult is it to go Full Australian?  Many people admire Australia’s HECS system (or HELP.  Or HECS-HELP.  It’s all a bit confusing because they keep changing the name).  No fees required at time of enrolment.  No real interest on the “contribution” (let’s not call it a loan).  No repayments required until the borrower is making $50K/year.  Repayment tied to income after that.  And from a convenience point of view, the idea that collection is handled through payroll witholding is pretty sweet.

It’s a system that of late has attracted a lot of attention in the US, especially because its own income-based relief program (which is HECS-ish in the way that our own Repayment Assistance Program is) would work a whole lot better if relief was automatic, which effectively would require a payroll withholding system.  But making HECS work is actually pretty complicated.  It requires a certain type of tax system, as well as practices in tax collection, and they don’t necessarily translate well. The trade-offs required to do this – some of which would apply here in Canada too – were well explained in a recent New America Foundation paper called Promise and Compromise: A Closer Look at Payroll Withholding for Federal Student Loans.  It’s a useful reminder of how tough some of the practical issues in student loan collection really are, and how going “full Australian” is much more difficult than casual admirers appreciate.

Malaysia Gets Tough on Loan Defaulters.  Really Tough.  For years, Malaysia’s loan system, the PTPTN (which longtime readers may recall has it’s own quite excellent anthem, available here) has been a disaster where repayment is concerned.  When I was there four years ago, I worked out that the agency was barely recouping a third of its money on an NPV basis.  More recent investigations by local researchers come to similar conclusions.

The government has gradually been tightening the system, mostly by starting to squeeze out private higher education providers (quite numerous in Malaysia).  But now it has decided to get tough by actually imposing a travel ban on people in student loans arrears.  The ban apparently applies to about 600,000 Malays, or about 2% of the country’s population.  This is actually somewhat more draconian than Kenya’s practice of refusing to renew the passport of anyone in arrears on their loans.  Interestingly, all student loans in Malaysia are required to have a guarantor (usually parents), but the government actually thinks a travel ban on the kids is politically more palatable than asking parents to make good on their guarantee.  Which of course makes you wonder what the guarantee was for in the first place.

Have a good weekend.

November 05

World-Class Universities in the Great Recession: Who’s Winning the Funding Game?

Governments always face a choice between access and excellence: does it make more sense to focus resources on a few institutions in order to make them more “world-class”, or does it make sense to build capacity more widely and increase access?  During hard times, these choices become more acute.  In the US, for instance, the 1970s were a time when persistent federal budget deficits as a result of the Vietnam War, combined with a period of slow growth, caused higher education budgets to contract.  Institutions often had to choose between their access function and their research function, and the latter did not always win.

My question today (excerpted from the paper I gave in Shanghai on Monday) is: how are major OECD countries handling that same question in the post-2008 landscape?

Below, I have assembled data on real institutional expenditures per-student in higher education, in ten countries: Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan.  I use expenditures rather than income because the latter tends to be less consistent, and is prone to sudden swings.  Insofar as is possible, and in order to reduce the potential impact of different reporting methods and definitions of classes of expenditure, I use the most encompassing definition of expenditures given the available data.  The availability of data across countries is uneven; I’ll spare you the details, but it’s reasonably good in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and Sweden, decent in Switzerland, below-par in Japan, the Netherlands, and Germany, and godawful in France.  For the first six countries, I can compare with reasonable confidence how “top” universities (as per yesterday, I’m defining “top” as being among the top-100 of the Academic Ranking of World Class Universities, or the ARWU-100 for short).  In the six countries with the best data, I can differentiate between ARWU-100 universities and the rest; in the other four, I have only partial data, which nevertheless leads me to believe that the results for “top” universities is not substantially different from what happened to all institutions.

Figure 1 basically summarizes the findings:

Figure 1: Changes in Real Per-Student Funding Since 2008 for ARWU-100 and All Universities, Selected OECD Countries

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Here’s what you can take from that figure:

1)  Since 2008, total per-student expenditures have risen in only three countries: the UK, Sweden, and Japan.  In the UK, the increase comes from the massive new tuition fees introduced in 2012.  In Sweden, a lot of the per-student growth comes from the fact that enrolments are decreasing rapidly (more on that in a future blog).  In Germany, per-student expenditure is down since 2008, but way up since 2007.  The reason?  The federal-länder “higher education pact” raised institutional incomes enormously in 2008, but growth in student numbers (a desired outcome of the pact) meant that this increase was gradually whittled away.

2)  “Top” Institutions do better than the rest of the university sector in the US, Canada, and Switzerland (but for different reasons), but worse in Sweden and Australia.  Some of this has to do with differences in income patterns, but an awful lot has to do with changes in enrolment patterns too, which are going in different directions in different countries.

3)  Australian universities are getting hammered.  Seriously.  Since 2008, their top four universities have seen their per-student income fall by 15% in real terms.  A small portion of that seems to be an issue of some odd accounting that elevated expenditures in 2008, and hence exaggerates expenses in the base year; but even without that, it’s a big drop.  You can see why they want higher fees.

4)  Big swings in funding don’t make much short-term difference in rankings – at least at the top.  Since 2008, top-100 universities in the US have increased their per-student expenditure by 10%, while Australian unis have fallen by 15%.  That’s a 25% swing in total.  And yet there has been almost no relative movement between the two in any major rankings.  When we think about great universities, we need to think more about stocks of assets like professors and laboratories, and less about flows of funds.

So there’s no single story around the world, but there are some interesting national policy choices out there.

If anyone’s interested in the paper, I will probably post it sometime next week after I fix up a couple of graphs: if you can’t wait, just email me (ausher@higheredstrategy.com), and I’ll send you a draft.

September 30

Fields of Study: Some International Comparisons

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “We really need to have more STEM grads in this country.  Really, we ought to be more like Germany or Japan – fewer of these ridiculous philosophy degrees, and more of those lovely, lovely engineers and scientists.”

Personally, I’ve heard this one too many times.  So, just for yuks, I decided to take a look at the distribution of degrees awarded by field of study across the G7 countries, plus (since I’m overdue in throwing some love in the direction of the blog’s antipodean readership) New Zealand and Australia.  The data is from the OECD, and is valid for 2012 for all countries except France, where the data is from 2009, and Australia where it is from 2011.

I started with the percentage of degrees that came from the Arts and Humanities.  The result was… surprising.

Figure 1: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities Fields

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Germany leads the pack with just under 21% of all degrees being awarded in humanities, and Canada and Australia bring up the rear with 11.6% and 11.1%, respectively.  So much for the narrative about Canada producing too many philosopher baristas.

But as we all know, humanities are only half the story – there’s also the question of applied humanities, or “Social Sciences” as they are more often known.  The Social Science category includes business and law.  It turns out that if you add the two together, the countries cluster in a relatively narrow band between 47 and 56 percent of all degrees granted.  No matter where you go in the world, what we call “Arts” is basically half the university.  We should also note that Canada’s combined total is essentially identical to those of the great STEM powerhouses of Japan and Germany.

Figure 2: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities and Social Science Fields

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Let’s now look directly at the STEM fields.  Figure 3 shows the percentage of degrees awarded in Science and Engineering across our nine countries of interest.  Here, Germany is in a more familiar place, at the top of the table.  But some of the other places are surprising if you equate STEM graduates with economic prosperity.  France, in second, is usually not thought of as an innovation hub, and Japan’s third place (first, if you only look at engineering) hasn’t prevented it from having a two-decade-long economic slump.  On the other hand, the US, which generally is reckoned to be an innovation centre, has the lowest percentage of graduates coming from STEM fields.  Canada is just below the median.

Figure 3: Percentage of Degrees Awarded from Science and Engineering Fields

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Last, Figure 4 looks at the final group of degrees: namely, those in health and education – fields that, in developed countries, are effectively directed to people who will pursue careers in the public services.  And here we see some really substantial differences between countries.  In New Zealand, over one-third of degrees are in one of these two fields.  But in Germany, Japan, and France – the three STEM “powerhouses” from Figure 3 – very few degrees are awarded in these fields.  This raises a question: are those countries really “good” at STEM, or do they just have underdeveloped education/heath sectors?

Figure 4: Percentage of Degrees Awarded in Health and Education Fields

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So, to go back to our initial story: it’s true that Japan and Germany are heavier on STEM subjects than Canada.  But, first, STEM-centricness isn’t obviously related to economic growth or innovation. And second, STEM-centricness in Germany and Japan doesn’t come at the expense of Arts subjects, it comes a the expense of health and education fields.

May 20

Who Wins and Who Loses in the “Top 100 Under 50” Rankings

The annual Times Higher Education “Top 100 Under 50” universities came out a few weeks ago.  Australians were crowing about their success, and a few people in Canada noticed that Canada didn’t do so well – only four spots: Calgary 22nd, Simon Fraser 27th, UQAM 85th, and Concordia 96th.   So, today, we ask the question: why do young Canadian universities not fare well on these rankings?

Well, one way to look at this is to ask: “who does well at these rankings?”  And the answer, as usual, is that the ones that make it to the very, very top are some pretty specialized, ludicrously well-funded places, which have no obvious Canadian equivalent.  For example:

  • ETH Lausanne (top school) has 5,000 undergraduates and 4,500 graduate students, making it Harvard-like in its student balance.  They do this despite, in theory, having an open-access system in place for domestic students; in practice, weaker students self-select out Lausanne because the failure rate in year 1 is so high (roughly 50%, higher in Math and Physics).  It may be the only university in the world to operate not just a nuclear reactor but also a fusion reactor as well.  The institution has base (i.e. operations) funding of slightly over $800 million Canadian, which works out to a ludicrous $80,000 per student.
  • Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) (2nd place) has an even more ridiculous 1,300 undergraduates and 2,100 graduates.  Its budget is a slightly smaller $250 million US (still over $60K per student), but it has a $2 billion endowment from its founder, POSCO (a major steel manufacturer in Korea), as well as a heavy tie-up with POSCO for applied research.  (A good history of Postech can be found here).  Again, no Canadian university had those kind of advantages growing up

You get the picture.  It’s a similar deal at Korea’s KAIST and Singapore’s Nanyang (both in the top five).  UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz are also in the top ten, and while the California system is currently experiencing some problems, these institutes continue to feed off the massive support the UC’s used to receive.  And since the THE rankings heavily privilege money and research intensity, you can see why these kinds of institutions score well ahead of Canadian schools, where implicit rules prevent any institution from reaching these degrees of research-intensity.

But look again at that Australian article I linked to above.  No fewer than 16 Australian universities made the top 100, and the reasons cited for their successes – public funding, stable regulation, English language, other cultural factors – all of these factors exist in Canada.  So why does Australia succeed where Canada doesn’t?

The explanation is actually pretty simple: on average, our universities are substantially older than Australia’s.  Even among the four Canadian schools, two arguably don’t actually meet the “under 50” criteria (Calgary was founded in 1945, though did not become an independent institution until 1966; Concordia dates from 1974, but the two colleges that merged to form it date back to 1896 and 1926, respectively).  Outside of those four, the only Canadian institutions with over 10,000 residential students, founded after 1965, are Lethbridge, Kwantlen, and Fraser Valley (though, depending on how you define “founding date”, presumably you could also make a case for Regina, MacEwan, and Mount Royal).  In Australia, only one-third of universities had degree-granting status before 1965.

The “under-50” designation effectively screens-out most institutions in countries that were early adopters of mass higher education.  The US, for instance, has only seven institutions on the THE list, five of which are in the late-developing West and South, and none of which are in the traditional higher education heartland of the Northeast.  It’s an arbitrary cut-off date, which has expressly been drawn in such a way that puts Asian universities in a better light.  It’s worth keeping that in mind when examining the results.

April 09

Australian Deregulation (Again) and the Future of Tuition Fees

So deregulation in Australia now looks to be dead and buried.  But in its death throes, the debate finally coughed-up some interesting ideas about how to pay for higher education.  Here’s the re-cap:

Not long after my last article on this subject, the coalition decided to put a second deregulation bill to a vote in the Senate.  The first bill failed by two votes.  The second one, after months of lobbying and arm-twisting, failed by four.  This suggests a couple of things:

1)      Minister Christopher Pyne and the Liberal party are as thick as two short planks when it comes to parliamentary management;

2)      If you give the opposition ten full months to yell “$100,000 degrees!”, you’re going to lose.  That some degrees were going to cost $100,000 was probably inevitable, but the idea that more than a handful would do so was risible.  The problem is that there’s really no way to model the consequences of deregulating a good such as education, which is at least partially a Veblen good.  As such, there’s no great way to refute those claims.  In other words: if you’re going to deregulate, do it quickly.

So the universities aren’t going to get any new money from students, which is a bit of a problem since there isn’t a whole lot of money coming from government either.  Pyne cancelled a planned 20% cut from the 2014 budget to university finances as a sweetener to get the deal through, but now that the deal has tanked there is genuinely no telling what the government’s next move might be (and the 2015-6 budget is right around the corner).

Now, right before the bill went down, ANU economist Bruce Chapman – the inventor of HECS back in the late 1980s – entered the fray.  He was an opponent of deregulation precisely because price increases, which students could pay using HECS, wouldn’t really act as a price signal, and hence would allow institutions to run-up fees far more than was socially useful.  But unlike the Labor Party he used to work for (it’s terribly difficult being a Labor loyalist in Australia these days, because of their ineffable uselessness), Chapman actually engaged with the government and suggested an alternative.

Effectively, Chapman suggested deregulation, plus a luxury tax: institutions can raise fees, but government can (and should) reduce public funding at something less than a dollar-for-dollar rate in response. Basically, if Melbourne raises an extra $10 million in fees, the government could cut their public subsidy by $5 million.  This allows institutions to use the market to get more money, but also puts some brakes on the process.  Institutions will still get their money, but students on the whole will probably pay less than they would under full-deregulation, the government will be on the hook for less HECS debt, and the financial gap between more and less prestigious institutions will be smaller.  It’s not an entirely novel idea – the Browne Review in England proposed something similar in 2010 – but it nevertheless has merit, and  deserves some examination here in Canada, too.

Pyne now says the Chapman proposal could form part of his third (!) deregulation bill, but university presidents have had enough, and have stopped backing deregulation (some interesting comments on this here from Hannah Forsyth).  You can go nuts working out their tactical motivation for abandoning the government at this point, but to me it just looks like they’ve decided this government is a goner, politically – why waste political capital backing anything from the present government, which would certainly be eviscerated by the next lot?  Better to negotiate elements of a Chapman package with Labor once they’re in power, and can claim the idea as their own.

At the dying end of this business came another interesting idea about how to set fees, this time from the excellent Andrew Norton.  He argues (here) that an egalitarian approach to setting fees would be to equalize them on the basis of average time-to-repayment.  Since time-to-repayment is a function of income in Australia, the equivalent here would simply be to set them as a function of average income, an idea I explored back here.  On recent trends, Arts fees should be falling, and Engineering fees should be rising.  Yet somehow, over here, such a simple idea seems beyond the pale of discussion.

Australia’s higher ed policy landscape is crazy in many ways, not least of which is the way university presidents tend to form circular firing squads on many issues.  But their vigor in discussing big policy issues in higher education is bracing; a welcome contrast to all the hiding from reality going on in Canadian governments.

January 28

Another Australian De-regulation Update

So the last time we tuned into antics in Canberra, the government was trying to pass a fairly ambitious piece of legislation that would completely de-regulate tuition fees while (more or less) maintaining the HECS system, which means post-graduate contributions are always tied to income, and thus do not become too onerous.  The government was also going to cut institutional grants by about 20%, but keep the “demand-driven” system in which government dollars follow students no matter how many students attend.

The problem with this, politically, is that the government does not control the Senate.  With Labour and Green opposed to the coalition, the government needs to attract six of eight votes belonging to independents and minor parties to get anything done in the upper chamber.  Late last year, four of those senators were making positive noises. Two others (including the delightful Jacqui Lambie – seriously, click that link, it’s totally worth it) were implacably opposed, while the final two in play – Dio Wang of the vaguely Ford-ist (minus the drugs) Palmer United Party, and Independent Nick Xenophon – were opposed, but perhaps open to passing a deal with amendments.

So the government switched into deal-making mode, right?  Wrong.  For reasons that defy rational explanation, the coalition opted for a snap December Senate vote on the package, as-was.  Cue a two-vote loss.  Frank Underwood would not have been amused.  In Australian parlance: the coalition whips were clearly a few sheep short of a full paddock.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  In response, the lower house simply adopted the same bill again, and sent it back to the Senate – only this time the government was ready to deal.  The 20% cut in government grants, those “necessary” savings that required the government to introduce de-regulation?  Turns out they’re negotiable – de-regulation apparently now matters more than fiscal probity.  The universities can hardly believe their luck: full freedom to increase fees, and no loss in government grant?  I don’t know exactly what’s going through vice-chancellors’ heads right now, but I’m betting that the words “eating”, “too”, “having”, and “cake” are all in there somewhere.

Problem is the government isn’t negotiating with vice-chancellors, it’s negotiating with Wang and Xenophon.  Wang has now said he is personally for de-regulation, but will abide by a caucus decision on the party line when voting (the question remains open as to how this would work, given that the only other Palmer senator is dead-set against the bill).  Xenophon wants the whole matter of university funding tossed over to a big bipartisan commission, a position which manages to be both sensible and absurd.  Sensible in that yes, changes of this magnitude are best done in bipartisan fashion, because otherwise institutions get policy whiplash if the opposition comes to power and undoes the change (a point I made back here).  On the other hand, it’s absurd in that there have been quite a few inquiries and commissions into higher education in the last few years; there are few secrets about the current system’s strengths and weaknesses.  Also, bipartisan commissions take two to tango, and there’s precious little sign the opposition Labour Party has any interest in handing the government a way out of this debacle (even if, as is whispered, some of them actually approve of the policy).  Xenophon presumably knows this, which is why his position – in Canadian parlance – is classic ragging the puck.

The clock is ticking on this proposal.  Universities need to know what to tell incoming students about their fees, so the question pretty much has to be solved by March.  That means another vote in the next five weeks or so.  Given the government’s ham-handedness in handling the file to date, odds are it’s not going to pass, though stranger things have happened.  But given the vaulting ambitions of Australian universities, and the seemingly limited desire of Australian government to fund higher education (per-student government funding is 30-40% lower than in Canada), it’s hard to imagine this option not coming back in some form in 2016.

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