Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Books

March 17

Lower Ed

It’s only March, but I’m declaring the Higher Ed book of the year competition closed. No one is going to beat Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. It is genius.

Before I start praising this book to the skies, it’s worth noting that this is a very American book. Anyone looking for insights into for-profits outside the United States should look elsewhere: the insights generated here do not translate well to other countries. This isn’t a fault: American authors use a kind of ex-cathedra voice saying “this is how it is” because it doesn’t occur to their publishers that there is a world outside the US worth catering to. So when they say “this is how it is” they mean “this is how it is in the US”. This is not a fault of the author, but something to keep in mind while reading it.

What makes McMillan Cottom’s story different from other good accounts of the private higher education market (see for instance A.J. Angulo’ Diploma Mills) is her experience within the industry. After graduating from her Bachelor’s program, she worked in the industry both in the “mom-and-pop” sector of the industry (that is, colleges that are locally owned small-ish business) and the new breed of national chain schools, owned by NYSE-listed companies whose approach to the industry is to simply, relentlessly, make money. She knows the industry from the inside out. As part of the sales force in these two companies, she has a deep understanding not just of the sales techniques, but of the customer base as well.

As was the case for last year’s One Thought book of the year, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, it’s the way the author allows students to speak for themselves which is so arresting. But in this case it’s an even more stunning technique because for-profit schools themselves have been so misunderstood. McMillan Cottom pushes back – hard – on the idea that private-college students are simply low-information students, that it is in part through ignorance that they attend such high-risk/low-reward institutions. While agreeing that many students are only dimly aware, if at all, of the prestige ladder of higher education and where these institutions fall within it, she counters by saying that what these students understand above all is a form of education gospel – that education and only education will lead them to success. And what for-profit colleges do, primarily, is find ways to satisfy that need in a way with a level of convenience that public colleges choose not to match.

The ridiculously complicated FAFSA (student aid) process? They take care of that for you. Complicated class schedule? They simplify that too. A need to wait until next September to start classes? Nu-uh: in private colleges, intakes start every month, so you can get started right away. If you’re mid-career and need some education to change your life who wants to hang around waiting for months to get started? So what’s the problem?

The problem of course is that return on investment on these course is usually terrible, with students getting sucked far into debt to get credentials that tend not to qualify them for jobs that would make the expense worthwhile. But if states put licensure requirements on – say – hairdressing, which pays maybe $12-15/hour, then what they are actually doing is allowing the people who provide training to enter that field to extract massive amounts of rent. It’s crazy to pay $20,000 for a hairdressing course to get a job that pays so little. But the alternative is no education and no job. And so the schools continue to attract students.

Eventually, as the scale of the con became apparent to her, McMillan Cottom quit the industry to start a PhD in sociology at Emory (key detail: Emory said yes even though the start of class was only a month away – the speed of the application turnaround was consequential). The result of that PhD was this book. It contains some elements which are very traditionally academic, such as a systemic look at how the industry was transformed when big chains of schools took over the market in the aughts, at right around the same time as the US economy began its long, post-dotcom decline. But it also contains some deeply original and arresting moments, such as overheard snippets of conversation in shopping malls.

McMillan Cottom’s critique goes beyond the predatory recruitment techniques of for-profit colleges. She sees them, in a sense, as a natural outgrowth of the current moment of capitalism (she would use the phrase “neo-liberalism”, which makes my teeth ache a bit, even though she uses the term in a more rigorous way than almost anyone else I’ve ever read). If good jobs are becoming scarce and education is required to get those jobs, and public education is insufficiently funded and public post-secondary institutes don’t do their job in terms of making themselves truly accessible (in terms of making enrolment convenient and easily understandable), then yeah – somebody is going to fill that market niche. So is the problem the niche-fillers or the failure of the political system to prevent that niche from opening in the first place?

Anyways, don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. You won’t be sorry.


January 23

A Puzzling Pattern in the Humanities

Big news in Alberta the other day: the University of Alberta has decided to cut fourteen (14!) programs, in the humanities. That’s on top of a programs cull just two years ago in which seventeen programs – mostly in Arts – were also axed! Oh my God! War on the humanities, etc, etc.

Or at least that’s the way it sounds, until you read the fine print around the announcement and realise that these fourteen programs, collectively, have 30 students enrolled in them. The puzzle here, it seems, is not so much “why are these programs being cancelled” as “why on earth were they ever approved in the first place”?

For the record, here are the programs being axed: Majors programs in Latin American studies, Scandinavian studies, honours programs in classical languages, creative writing, history/classics (combined) religious studies, women and gender studies, comparative literature, French, math (that is, a BA Hon in math – which is completely separate from the BSc in Math, which is going nowhere), and also Scandinavian studies (again). And technically, they are not being axed, but rather “suspending admissions”, which means that current students will be able to finish their degrees.

Two takeaways from this:

The first is that the term “programs” is a very odd and sometimes misunderstood one. Universities can get rid of programs without affecting a single job, without even reducing a single course offerings. In the smorgasboard world of North American universities, all programs are essentially virtual. The infrastructure of a university is essentially the panoply of courses offered by departments. Academic entrepreneurs can then choose to bundle certain configurations of courses into “programs” (with the approval of a lot of committees and Senate of course). Of course, programs need co-ordinators and a co-ordinators get stipends and more importantly a small bump in prestige. But overall, programs are very close to costless because departments are absorbing all the costs of delivering the actual courses. (The real costs are actually the ludicrous amount of programming time involved in getting registrarial software to recognize all these different degree pathway requirements).

It doesn’t actually have to be this way. Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Science only has about fifty degree programs; pretty much every mid-size Canadian university has twice that. And there’s no obvious benefit to students in this degree of specialization. What’s the advantage of this? Why, apart from inertia and a desire not to rock the boat, do we put up with this?

A second point, though. Readers may well ask “why do these kinds of program cuts always affect the humanities more than any other faculty”. This is a good question. And the answer is: because no other faculty hacks itself into ever-tinier pieces the way humanities does. Seriously. This isn’t a question of specialization – every field has that – it’s a question of whether or not to create academic structures and bureaucracies to parallel every specialization.

Imagine, for instance, what biology would look like if it were run like humanities. You’d probably have separate degrees and program co-ordinators for epigenetics, ichnology, bioclimatology, cryobiology, limnology, morphology – the potential list goes on and on. But of course biology doesn’t do that, because biology is not ridiculous. Humanities, on the other hand…

There are lots of good histories of the humanities out there (I recommend Rens Bod’s A New History of the Humanities and James Turner’s Philology: the Origins of the Modern Humanities), but as far as I know no one has ever really looked in a historical way as to why humanities, alone among branches of the academy, chose to Balkanize itself administratively in such an odd way.  For a set of disciplines which constantly worries about being under attack, you’d think that grouping together in larger units would be an obvious defence posture.  Why not just have big programs in philosophy, languages and literature and philology/history and be done with it?

March 31

The Development of Post-Secondary Education Systems in Canada

This is the title of a recent-ish book (subtitle: a comparison between British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, 1980-2010) edited, and largely written by Don Fisher and Kjell Rubenson of UBC, Teresa Shanahan of York U, and Claude Trottier of Université Laval.  Despite a couple of significant faults, it’s well worth a read.

The book’s main strengths are the three chapters that act as histories of each of the titular provinces.  We haven’t had a really decent history of Canadian higher education since Donald Cameron’s More Than an Academic Question, which came out almost 25 years ago now, and so this is a welcome addition.  (OK, it’s missing the other seven provinces, but these three provinces are 80% of the system, so that’s not too shabby.)  These chapters are thorough, detailed, and do a reasonably good job of mixing narrative storytelling with data analysis.  That’s no mean feat.

Where the book falls down (to some extent, anyway) is on two points, in particular: the analysis of accessibility, and the analysis of what they call marketization and neoliberalism.

First, on accessibility.  It’s pretty clear from the text that accessibility is defined entirely in terms of tuition fees.  Their look at student aid is superficial.  In particular, the insistence on comparing Quebec’s efforts to other provinces without taking into account the Canada Student Loans Program indicates they don’t understand the system very well.  (There’s a similar problem on R&D and the role of granting councils – the absence of a section on federal policy occasionally makes it difficult to understand what actually happened.)

What the authors do instead, in contravention of nearly all the international literature, is make a distinction between accessibility (i.e., fees) and “participation” – which is what everyone else would call accessibility.  They proceed to do two things: first, they directly compare combined college/university participation rates across the three provinces without mentioning the fact that PSE in Quebec lasts five years, while in the other provinces it’s four years.  This makes Quebec look slightly better than the other provinces, which most analysts would say is not entirely warranted.  Second, they are then surprised (really?) that even with this juking of the stats, participation rates in QC are not higher then they “should” be, given the tuition differences.  This suggests a view of access/participation that is particularly one-dimensional, and not informed by much actual literature on the subject.

And yet the issue of fees is a central one in this book.  At least one of the book’s authors – my guess would be Fisher – is really desperate to make as much hay as possible out of “marketization” in higher education, and then use this as evidence of a “neoliberalism” in which “competition” and higher fees are believed to be a spur to quality.  And while there are definitely people out there who believe this trope, the evidence that anyone in either Ontario or BC ever believed it is pretty thin (in fact, both governments introduced new external monitoring bodies to oversee quality assurance).  Yes, the Harris Tories and Campbell Liberals both allowed tuition fees to rise (as did the the NDP and Liberals in Ontario, albeit at slower rates), but allowing tuition fees to rise and “marketization” (let alone “neoliberalism”) are not one and the same thing.

There are lots of goods for which government shares costs with individuals: public transit, for instance.  The province and city put in some dough, but individuals have to pay to use the service.  Over the past couple of decades, costs have risen.  In 2005, here in Toronto, I could get on the TTC for $2.50.  Now, it’s $3.25, a 30% increase in nominal terms.  Now, if I went around telling everyone we had a neoliberal transit system because of a change in costs – irrespective of how much each government puts into the service – people would think I was mental.  Yet that’s effectively what this book argues with respect to higher education, to its distinct discredit.

So, the history is good, but the analysis ranges from decent to terrible.  Still, I urge you to pick up this book if you’re a Canadian higher ed buff.  It’s worth it, flaws and all.

January 29

Asleep at the Switch…

… is the name of a new(ish) book by Bruce Smardon of York University, which looks at the history of federal research & development policies over the last half-century.  It is a book in equal measures fascinating and infuriating, but given that our recent change of government seems to be a time for re-thinking innovation policies, it’s a timely read if nothing else.

Let’s start with the irritating.  It’s fairly clear that Smardon is an unreconstructed Marxist (I suppose structuralist is the preferred term nowadays, but this is York, so anything’s possible), which means he has an annoying habit of dropping words like “Taylorism” and “Fordism” like crazy, until you frankly want to hurl the book through a window.  And it also means that there are certain aspects of Canadian history that don’t get questioned.  In Smardon’s telling, Canada is a branch-plant economy, always was a branch-plant economy, and ever shall be one until the moment where the state (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) has the cojones to stand up to international capital and throw its weight around, after which it can intervene to decisively and effectively restructure the economy, making it more amenable to being knowledge-intensive and export-oriented.

To put it mildly, this thesis suffers from the lack of a serious counterfactual.  How exactly could the state decisively rearrange the economy so as to make us all more high-tech?  The best examples he gives are the United States (which achieved this feat through massive defense spending) and Korea (which achieved it by handing over effective control of the economy to a half-dozen chaebol).  Since Canada is not going to become a military superpower and is extremely unlikely to warm to the notion of chaebol, even if something like that could be transplanted here (it can’t), it’s not entirely clear to me how Smardon expects something like this to happen, in practice.  Occasionally, you get a glimpse of other solutions (why didn’t we subsidize the bejesus out of the A.V. Roe corporation back in the 1960s?  Surely we’d be an avionics superpower by now if we had!), but most of these seem to rely on some deeply unrealistic notions about the efficiency of government funding and procurement as a way to stimulate growth.  Anyone remember Fast Ferries?  Or Bricklin?

Also – just from the perspective of a higher education guy – Smardon’s near-exclusive focus on industrial research and development is puzzling.  In a 50-year discussion of R&D, Smardon essentially ignores universities until the mid-1990s, which seems to miss quite a bit of relevant policy.  Minor point.  I digress.

But now on to the fascinating bit: whatever you think of Smardon’s views about economic restructuring, his re-counting of what successive Canadian governments have done over the past 50 years to make the Canadian economy more innovative and knowledge-intensive is really quite astounding.  Starting with the Glassco commission in the early 1960s, literally every government drive to make the country more “knowledge-intensive” or “innovative” (the buzzwords change every decade or two) has taken the same view: if only publicly-funded researchers (originally this meant NRC, now it means researchers in university) could get their acts together and talk to industry and see what their problems are, we’d be in high-tech heaven in no time.  But the fact of the matter is, apart from a few years in the 1990s when Nortel was rampant, Canadian industry has never seemed particularly interested in becoming more innovative, and hence why we perennially lag the entire G7 with respect to our record on business investment in R&D.

You don’t need to buy Smardon’s views about the potentially transformative role of the state to recognize that he’s on to something pretty big here.  One is reminded of the dictum about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.  Clearly, even if better co-ordination of public and private research efforts is a necessary condition for swifter economic growth, it’s not a sufficient one.  Maybe there are other things we need to be doing that don’t fit into the Glassco framework.

At the very least, seems to me that if we’re going to re-cast our R&D policies any time soon, this is a point worth examining quite thoroughly, and Smardon has done us all a favour by pointing this out.

Bon weekend.

January 27

The Future of Work (and What it Means for Higher Education), Part 1

Back in the 1990s when we were in a recession, Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book called The End of Work, which argued that unemployment would remain high forever because of robots, information technology, yadda yadda, whatever.  Cue the longest peacetime economic expansion of the century.

Now, we have a seemingly endless parade of books prattling on about how work is going to disappear: Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, Martin Ford’s Rise of the RobotsJerry Kaplan’s Humans Need not Apply, Susskind and Susskind’s The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts (which deals specifically with how info tech and robotics will affect occupations such as law, medicine, architecture, etc.), and from the Davos Foundation,  Klaus Schwab’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some of these are insightful (such as the Susskinds’ effort, though their style leaves a bit to be desired); others are hysterical (Ford); while others are simply dreadful (Schwab: seriously, if this is what rich people find insightful we are all in deep trouble).

So how should we evaluate claims about the imminent implosion of the labour market?  Well first, as Martin Wolf says in this quite sober little piece in Foreign Affairs, we shouldn’t buy into the hype that “everything is different this time”.  Technology has been changing the shape of the labour market for centuries, sometimes quite rapidly.  We will go on changing.  The pace may accelerate a bit, but the idea that things are suddenly going to “go exponential” are simply wrong.  Just because we can imagine technology creating loads of radical disruption doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  Remember the MOOC revolution, which was going to wipe out universities?  Exactly.

But just because the wilder versions of these stories are wrong doesn’t mean important things aren’t happening.  The key is to be able to lose the hype.  And to my mind, the surest way to get past the hype is to clear your mind of the idea that advances in robotics or information technology “replace jobs”.  This is simply wrong; what they replace are tasks.

We get a bit confused by this because we remember all the jobs that were lost to technology in manufacturing.  But what we forget is that the century-old technology of the assembly line had long turned jobs into tasks, with each individual performing a single task, repetitively.  So in manufacturing, replacing tasks looked like replacing jobs.  But the same is not true of the service sector (which covers everything from shop assistants to lawyers).  This work is not, for the most part, systematic and routinized, and so while IT can replace tasks, it cannot replace “jobs”  per se.  Jobs will change as certain tasks get automated, but they don’t necessarily get wiped out.  Recall, for instance, the story I told about ATMs a few months ago: that although ATMs had become ubiquitous over the previous forty years, the number of bank tellers not only hadn’t decreased, but had actually increased slightly.  It’s just that, mainly, they were now doing a different set of tasks.

Where I think there are some real reasons for concern is that a lot of the tasks that are being routinized are precisely the ones we used to give to new employees.  Take law, for instance, where automation is really taking over document analysis – that is, precisely the stuff they used to get articling students to do.  So now what do we do for an apprenticeship path?

Working conditions always change over time in every industry, of course, but it seems reasonable to argue that job change in white-collar industries – that is, the ones for which university education is effectively an entry-requirement – are going to change substantially over the next couple of decades.  Again, it’s not job losses; rather, it is job change.  And the question is: how are universities thinking through what this will mean for the way students are taught?  Too often, the answer is some variation on “well, we’ll muddle through the way we always do”.  Which is a pretty crap answer, if you ask me.  A lot more thought needs to go into this.  Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how to do that.

January 25

One In, One Out

I had a discussion a few months ago with a government official who was convinced she knew what was wrong with universities.  “They have no discipline,” she said.  “They just go out and create new programs all the time with no thought as to what the cost implications are or what the labour market implications are, and so costs just keep going up and up.”

I told her she was only half right.  It’s absolutely true that universities have no discipline when it comes to academic programs, but the problem really isn’t on the creation side.  When universities start a new program, it has to go through a process where enrolment is projected, labour market uptake estimated, and all that jazz.  And yes, there is a certain amount of creativity and outright bullshit in these numbers since no one really knows how to estimate this stuff in a cost-effective manner.  But basically, these things have a decent track record: they hit their enrolment targets often enough that they haven’t fallen into disrepute.

The problem is that these enrolment targets aren’t hit exclusively by attracting new students to the institution; there is always some cannibalization of students from existing programs involved.  Therefore, while each new program might be successful in its own terms, these programs were succeeding only by making every other program in the faculty slightly less effective.

And here’s where the lack of discipline comes in.  At some point, institutions need to sit back and take a look at existing programs, and be able to prune them judiciously.  When resources – particularly staffing resources – are static, if you keep trying to pile on new programs without getting rid of the old ones, all you get are a lot of weak programs (not to mention more courses staffed by sessionals).

And here’s one of the biggest, dirtiest secrets of academics: they suck at letting things go.  They are hoarders; nothing, once approved by Senate, must ever be taken away.  Prioritization exercises?  Never!  After all, something might be found not to be a priority.

Getting rid of academic programs is one of the purest examples of Mancur Olson’s Collective Action problem. Getting rid of any given program will hurt a few people a lot, while the majority will barely feel the benefits.  The advantage in terms of political mobilization always goes to the side who perceive themselves to have the most at stake, and so they are very often able to mobilize support and stop the cuts (this point is made very well in Peter Eckel’s excellent book Changing Course: Making the Hard Decisions to Eliminate Academic Programs).  But over time, if you can never cut any programs, then the collective does start to hurt, because of the cumulative effect of wasted resources.

Of course, Olson’s theory also gives us a clue as to how to solve this problem: there need to be stronger incentives within institutions for people to support program closures.  One way to do that would be to introduce a one in, one out rule.  That is, every time Senate endorses a new program, it has to cut one somewhere else.  Such a rule would mean that pretty much anyone in the university who has an ambition to open a program at some point would have an incentive, if not to support specific program closures, then at least to support an effective process for identifying weak programs.

Might be worth a try, anyway.  Because this hoarding habit really needs to stop.

November 13

A Ministry of Talent

My friend and colleague, Jamie Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation in the United States, recently wrote a book called America Needs Talent.  It’s a short, popularly-oriented account of how human capital drives the economy, and what countries and cities can do to acquire it.  One of the suggestions he makes is for a federal “Department of Talent”, which is intriguing as a thought experiment, if nothing else.  So let’s explore that idea for a moment.

To begin, let’s be clear about what Merisotis means by “talent”.  He’s painting with a very broad brush here.  Yes, he means “top talent” in the sense of highly qualified scientists, entrepreneurs, etc.,  but he’s also talking about the talents one acquires through post-secondary education: everything from car repair to microbiology.  So when he says “Department of Talent”, what he’s really talking about is a “Department of Skills”, just with a much less vocational sheen.

Most of Merisotis’ argument could be transported to Canada (albeit in somewhat muted form, given the differing nature of the two countries’ federal responsibilities).  The primary goal of any government is (or should be) to raise levels of productivity.  No increase in productivity, no increase in standard of living (or standard of public services).  So there’s always a need to come up with better ways to think through how a country can raise its overall skills profile.

Yet at the federal level, we split up that responsibility among four ministries (warning: I have not yet bothered to learn the snappy new names the Trudeau government has bestowed upon departments).  In Canada, we have an Industry/Science Ministry, which plays a huge role in developing scientific careers, and fostering skills/knowledge through science-business relationships.  We have a Human Resources Ministry (now on its sixth name in twelve years), which supports training and learning in a variety of guises.  We have an Immigration Ministry in charge of bringing people into the country, which sort of co-ordinates with Human Resources in working out labour market needs, but not necessarily in ways that maximizes skill acquisition.  And finally, we have a Foreign Ministry, which is increasingly interested in attracting foreign students, and that has knock-on effects for immigration down the road.

And so, genuine question: why not hive-off the bits of all of those ministries that focus on talent development and acquisition, and stick them into a single ministry?  Why not create an organization with a singular focus of making our talent pool across all industries better?  It’s not impossible; in fact, Saskatchewan already tried it for several years with a ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration (an experiment recently unwound for reasons that remain obscure).

I think the quick and simple answer here is that changing bureaucratic chairs is not the same as changing actual policy orientation, and still less about changing results.  In reality, you might create a lot of churn, with very few actual results.  Still, the thought experiment is a useful one: who is in charge of ensuring that Canada always has the best talent at its disposal, in every field of endeavour?  Who makes sure that our education and immigration policies are complimentary?  Given the nature of our federation, this is always going to be a distributed function, but it seems to me that we don’t actually pose questions this way.  We talk about programs (how can we improve student loans?) or institutions (how can we increase the number of community college seats?), but only rarely do we talk about what the final talent pool will look like.

So, while a Ministry of Talent might make not make a lot of sense, there’s still much to be gained by talking about ends rather than means.  A “Talent Agenda”, maybe?  Something to think about, anyway.

October 22

Amusing Footnotes on Global Academic Pay

A few months back, I finished reading The Global Future of Higher Education and the Academic Profession: The BRICs and the United States (edited by – among others – Phil Altbach and Liz Reisberg). It’s a good book for two reasons: first, it contains pretty good thumbnail sketches of the four BRIC countries’ higher ed systems, and second, it shows how crazy and fragile academics lives are in most of the world.

(An aside here: one thing I really like about this book is that it just treats the four BRIC countries as entirely separate case studies, rather than four aspects of a similar phenomenon.  This is important because although BRIC was a handy acronym to encompass “big economies getting rich quickly in the mid-00s”, their vastly differing fates this decade shows that their economic similarities were pretty ephemeral.  And what goes for their economies goes double for their higher education systems, which are basically chalk and cheese.  The result is a much better product than the much more detailed, but conceptually muddled book by Martin Carnoy et al., University Expansion in a Changing Global Economy: Triumph of the BRICs.)

One of the highly amusing (to me, anyway) parts of this book was the way it underlined how academics get paid.  In all four countries, junior academic pay is substantially below average urban wages.  That sounds surprising – aren’t these people extremely well-educated?  Can’t they command big salaries elsewhere?  To which the answer is: yes, they can, which is why recruiting talented people to the academic profession is very difficult in some places (especially Russia and India).  But it’s worth noting also that with the exception of Russia, relatively few junior academics in any of these countries possess a PhD.  In most cases, they come with Master’s degrees (in Brazil, Bachelor’s degrees are still pretty common), and many never progress beyond that.  If they do get a doctorate, they often get it while receiving paid leave from their university, which is not a bad deal.

So one of the book’s themes are the various ways that academics make money outside of formal academia – either by moonlighting at other (usually private) universities, or by teaching in a test-prep or cram school.  Interestingly, in some countries, universities open their own test-prep schools specifically so as to provide moonlighting opportunities for their own profs, which sounds only just this side of crazy, but makes sense when you realize many of these places live with weird, bifurcated budgeting rules that put them in a straightjacket with respect to public money, but let them go hog-wild with self-generated income.

The rules on money from public sources play out in some very weird ways in China and India.  In these countries, base pay is centrally regulated.  But over the years, political compromises have allowed profs access to all sorts of pools of money outside their base pay.  In China, on top of base pay, there are separate allowances for housing, food, telephone, transportation and laundry.  India also has housing and transportation allowances, in addition to a “dearness allowance” (not a term of affection, but rather a cost of living adjustments), but also – and this is my absolute favourite – provides academics with a salary increment if they agree to a vasectomy or hysterectomy (conditions apply with respect to age, age of spouse, and number of children).

Basically, all these countries have highly centralized bureaucratic systems regulating institutional spending and pay, and all of them have a hard time treating money as fungible.  This creates all sorts of situations that look pretty inane on the outside, but if you block out the details it’s still just a story of institutions maximizing revenue wherever possible (which usually means meeting market demand), and paying professors whatever they can to retain talent (which can mean all sorts of things).

Still, it makes the American practice of paying profs for nine months and letting them make up the difference on research grants seem pretty simple by comparison.

October 20

OK, Everybody Take A Valium

Heady scenes last night.  We have a new government with a strong mandate.  And it’s not the by-now reviled Conservatives.  It can seem like a whole new world is emerging.

But as far as PSE is concerned, very little actually changed last night.  Higher education is mostly a provincial responsibility, and nothing that happened can change the fact that most provincial budgets are in a parlous state, and few governments (bar perhaps Alberta’s) seem much interested in spending on post-secondary education.

Did anything change federally?  Well, tone.  I would bet the phrase “commiting sociology” won’t be used as a term of abuse any time soon.  But as I have noted in a platform analyses here, here, and here, the Liberal platforms contains: i) no new transfer money for provinces; ii) no new money for granting councils; and, iii) no new money (or not very much anyways) for student aid – though they are promising a major and welcome re-jig of student aid, which will be to the benefit of some students from below-median income families.

That’s not very good news, but there is a base that can be built upon.  This is a government that will be more sympathetic to the concerns of the knowledge economy than the last one.  They likely can be brought round to the merits of basic science, provided that there are convincing answers for improving private sector innovation.  And to the extent that significant improvements can be made without spending a dime (do read Jim Woodgett’s A Decade of Mishandling  Science in Canada for more on this), I suspect there will be some willing ears in government.

But it’s not going to happen on its own.  The whole post-secondary community needs to speak with a single voice on this.  And it needs to speak quickly.  The basic policy framework for the new government will be set in weeks, not months.  Let’s roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

October 15

The Most Horrifying Book of the Year

One of the most famous studies on higher education and opportunity was published a little over fifteen years ago by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale.  Using something called the College and Beyond Survey, they followed over 6,000 students who had been accepted to American universities in 1976, and then looked at their outcomes almost twenty years later, in 1995.  The key finding was that holding SATs constant, school selectivity didn’t matter much.  The important thing wasn’t attending Harvard, it was having the marks to get into Harvard (for whites, at least – for black students, accessing the networks available to selective school alumni did have a positive effect on education).

As selective universities became even more selective during the early 2000s, and their average student’s socio-economic background drifted upwards, this study was comforting: the rich were just wasting their money on Ivies, and the poorer but talented who were excluded from those schools would end up doing just as well, even if they went elsewhere.  Except: I’ve never met an American parent who actually believed the study.  Sure, they’d say, but things have changed since the mid-70s.  Networks matter more, and by God the one thing you get at an Ivy League school is a network.

A book came out this past spring that explains why they’re right and Kruger and Dale are, if not wrong, then at least out of date.  It’s called Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs by Lauren Rivera, a professor at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.   It follows the graduate recruiting activities of a number of unnamed banking and consulting firms – the tiny fraction of companies that give 22 year-olds jobs that pay roughly six figures in the first year – across a number of Ivy League schools. And it will horrify you, and make you profoundly glad you don’t live in the United States.

The first couple of chapters are pretty mind-blowing.  The descriptions of how these major banks and consulting companies are dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars – each – on recruiting activities on these Ivy League campuses are bad enough (there must be a lot of very good parties at these places). What is truly mind-blowing is that all of these organizations, filled with “masters of the universe” types, genuinely seem to think that whatever Harvard and Princeton admissions is doing, it must be absolutely, 100% right, because that’s effectively the only filter they have.  If you’re from a selective Ivy, these purveyors of elite jobs think “they must be smart and fast learners; let’s hire them”.  From a state school?  You don’t even get an interview.  What you have accomplished in your four years of higher education is irrelevant; it’s all about where you went to school.

Not only is this mindbogglingly stupid (and, to tell the truth, odd – surely one of these companies should have arbitraged this over-focus on a tiny minority, and gone big on flagship state university hiring?), but also it is infuriating in the extreme.  Read it, or at lest the first couple of chapters, which describe how firms filter by campus (it gets less interesting after that): if your blood doesn’t boil, you have no soul.

A last note: try reading this book next to Kevin Carey’s The End of College, or Ryan Craig’s College Disrupted.  Both Carey and Craig are of the opinion that one thing that will drive disruption in higher education is that companies are going to want the “best” employees. Eventually, they say, algorithms are going to come along and find those employees wherever they are, at which point the prestige value of a degree from a selective school will disappear quickly.

But reading Pedigree it becomes clear that what employers are usually looking for are people who remind them of themselves.  People they won’t mind hanging out with on a long night in the office.  People who will fit in.  And you don’t need an algorithm for that.  You just need an old boys’ club.

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