HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Elections

August 26

October 20th

Policy-making in Ottawa is like a huge river, moving in a slow stately procession, and only occasionally providing excitement if you hit some rapids.  It’s not like Washington, which – for all its vaunted “gridlock” – is actually more like an ice jam: there is a lot of pressure in the system, and things can move pretty quickly if the jam breaks somewhere.  Partly it’s because of our Westminster system, and our tradition of party discipline: there are not many independent policy actors on the hill, and hence, not many points where interest groups can exert leverage.  Add to that a relative lack of genuinely independent intellectual life in Ottawa (government and interest groups are dominated by policy analysts – Canada has no real equivalent to the Brookings Institute, or even the New America Foundation), and what you’ve got is a shop that doesn’t absorb new ideas easily.

All of which is to say that changes of government represent one of the very few times where new ideas get a hearing.  And while it’s far from assured, there’s a significant chance that there will be a new government on, or shortly after, October 19th – the Tories haven’t seen a poll putting them in majority territory in years, and it seems unlikely that either opposition party will keep them in power, either with votes or abstentions.  So October 20th is going to be the crucial date for policy entrepreneurs.

A new government comes to power with only a limited idea of what it’s going to do.  Party platforms don’t come close to covering all areas of government activity, so new ministers are winging it on most files.  Most post-secondary files come under the “winging it” category: apart from a Tory promise on tax breaks for apprenticeships, and a Liberal promise for more money for Aboriginal students, there’s been nada in the platforms so far, and as I said back here, that’s probably not going to change. Also, if there is a change of government, the new cabinet will be pretty raw: apart from Mulcair, there’s no one on the NDP front bench who’s ever held a cabinet seat at either a federal or provincial level; among Liberals, there are a dozen or so who have the “Honorable” prefix, but only Ralph Goodale, Stephane Dion, and John McCallum had substantial portfolios for any period of time.  Whether a new cabinet is red or orange, or a combination of the two, it’s actually going to be pretty green (but not Green).

Now, if you’re in the business of selling policy ideas, green cabinets are the best kind.  They have little allegiance to the status quo, are interested in new ideas, and cynicism hasn’t yet set in: they will never be more open to new ideas than they are at the start of a new government.  But – and this is the important bit – they have to be new ideas.  New governments may want to replace old policies, but they won’t do it by re-adopting even older ones.  There has to be an element of progress involved.

In higher education, there aren’t a whole lot of areas where the Harper government agenda needs to be re-wound.  On student aid and transfers, frankly, they’ve done little that opposition parties wouldn’t have done themselves.  Internationalization has been a disappointment, but it’s small ball from a government perspective.  Where a big re-think is needed is on research.  Dollars are getting scarcer, and while a greater focus on applied research has had some successes (particularly the bits involving polytechnics), the degree of de-emphasis on basic research, and the obsession with knowledge translation, is becoming alarming.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there proposing solutions that go beyond: “bring back the status quo ante”.  That’s a problem, because no matter how much everyone liked the status quo ante, that approach doesn’t excite new ministers.  If the sector wants a new approach that will attract big interest and big dollars, it has to come up with something genuinely new.

October 20th is fast approaching.  And this kind of window rarely opens twice.  Time to get cracking on some new approaches.

(corrected from the original and the version that went out via email to reflect the fact that the election is on the 19th, not the 18th.  That was a bad goof on my part – sorry)

May 28

The 2016 Presidential Race

I’ve been spending a bit of time in the United States the last couple of weeks (Indianapolis, Boston, Washington DC), and one of the things I’m noticing is the extent to which political discourse – which, ludicrously, already centers around the 2016 Presidential Race – is focussed on issues in higher education.  Specifically: issues of tuition and student debt.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it’s an enormous shift from about ten years ago, when higher education first started to inch into the news.  Back then, it was about competitiveness: how can we use higher education to gain a march on all these various Asian countries (usually India and China) who suddenly  appear to be eating Americans’ lunch.  Back then, higher ed was relishing the attention – finally, a Sputnik moment, to push higher education back to the forefront of the political debate (Sputnik being a positive thing in American higher education, because it brought about a huge burst of spending on university science).  Now, no one is talking about a higher education bonanza.  No one is talking about quality.  To the extent anyone is talking about putting up new public money, it is meant to be used to make education more affordable.

(In Canada, of course, we’re way ahead of them.  This is the feed-the-student-starve-the-campus routine that we’ve seen for the last four years.)

On the Democratic side, it’s President Obama’s proposal for free college tuition that is setting the tone of the debate.  Bernie Sanders, trying to outflank Hillary Clinton to the left, has been an outspoken proponent.  Martin O’Malley (remember Mayor Carcetti, from The Wire?  He’s based on O’Malley), the only other semi-serious contender, talks about “debt-free college”, but his actual policy proposals involve expanding and improving income-based repayment, and allowing college students to refinance their loans at lower rates of interest.  Clinton, meanwhile, has said she supports Obama’s free college plan, but then went on to say that debt is caused by more than tuition, which implies that her thinking actually lies in other areas (most likely: more Pell grants, more tax credits, and tougher regulation of for-profits).

Action on the Democratic side of the ledger isn’t all that surprising: they’ve owned the higher education file since 1992, when Bill Clinton became the first ever candidate to successfully campaign on the issue.  What’s more interesting is the amount of attention being paid to higher education by Republican candidates.

Among currently declared candidates, Marco Rubio has shown the most audacity, backing a relatively serious access and completion agenda.  He has co-sponsored legislation backing so-called “human capital loans”, and has also called for the creation of a national unit-record data base to collect better data on student outcomes.  This has made him something of a darling among centrist wonks who think he might herald a new age of bipartisanship in higher education.

That may be clutching at straws: a number of other Republican candidates seem to be trying to run based on their ability to beat the living crap out of colleges: Governors Jindal (Louisiana) and Walker (Wisconsin) both introduced stonking cuts to higher ed in their budgets this year, mostly to show how tough they are on feckless elites (a Republican meme that goes back to Ronald Reagan’s successful 1966 run for the California Governor’s office).

The presence of differences in policy thinking in both parties means it’s sure to be a topic of debate right through the primaries (i.e. for another ten months or so).  Stay tuned.

April 30

An Alberta Election PSE Primer

As long-time readers know, when there are important elections looming, I like to do analyses of party platforms.  There is such an election in Alberta next Monday.  It has never before occurred to me to write about Alberta election platforms because never before has it seemed like the Alberta PCs, who have been in power since Nixon’s first term, ever seemed likely to lose their majority (for the record, I never bought the polls in 2012).  And yet here we are, just a few days out, with the Conservatives in third, and the NDP running first in rural Alberta in some polls.

These are strange times.  Like, Book of Revelations strange times.  (“And when he opened the seventh seal, there was a silence about the space of half an hour, until the first polls began to trickle in” – Rev 8:1.)

And so, without further ado, here’s what the parties have to say:

The “Prentice Plan” (apparently the words Progressive Conservative don’t focus test well, despite the Party having been in power since Prohibition) promises a “world-class education system”.  Most of it is about K-12, but PSE does receive three vague-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness bullet-points.  These are: i) enhance financial aid and student awards; ii) develop a plan to ensure stable funding for institutions; and, iii) ensure apprenticeship training is more inline with labour-market demands.  For anyone who’s been awake for the last four years, this is baffling: the Tories slashed grants in 2010, and have yo-yoed institutional funding since 2008 (it’s 5% up!  It’s 7% down! Whee!).  Given the collapse in oil sands production, the most obvious way to “align apprenticeships with workforce needs” is probably to simply stop doing them for a year or two (see here for more on the link between commodity prices and apprenticeships).  So their platform seems to be mostly about running against their own recent record, with a little fantasy thrown in. Oh, and no commitment to more money for institutions, so far as I can tell.

The Wildrose Alliance Party, of course, does not have a record on which to run.  No one does, because the Tories have been in power since the late 17th century.  And that lack of familiarity with power shows in the party’s PSE platform, which is called – wait for it – “World-Class Post-Secondary, Trades & Skills Training” (imaginative, huh?).  They have an affordability and accessibility portfolio, which is pure Glen Murray (better transfer credit, more online delivery), a research policy that is nothing of the sort (more collaboration with industry, more tax credits for undergraduate students – yes really), and a trades/skills policy that is a mix of the good (more dual credit programs in trades in secondary schools), the banal (better information in high schools), the already-being-done (collaborate with other provinces to make trades certifications more portable), and the slightly weird (allow trades completers to choose between an oral and a written exam).  Note, however: no new public money for institutions.

The New Democrats, or rather, “Alberta’s New Democrats”, presumably to distinguish them from the ravening socialists who periodically run their neighbouring provinces, make only three PSE-related commitments in their platform.  One is with respect to re-installing the Summer Temporary Employment Program for youth ($10 million).  The second is “stable funding for universities and colleges” – in practice, a set of guaranteed annual increases of about 5% per year, which is quite substantial.  The third is to impose a total freeze on tuition, which undoes about 50% of the good of promise number two.

So if you’re in Alberta and you’re voting education in this election, the NDP would seem to be the obvious choice. That said: even if they are elected, and even if they are competent enough in government to deliver on their promises (a challenge for any non-incumbent party in a province where the government has been in power since the latter part of the Tang Dynasty), the net increase in money for institutions will still be below the rate of increase in universities’ underlying costs.  Cutbacks will still happen.  Sorry.

May 27

Ontario Platform Review

The current Ontario election is possibly the most depressing one I’ve ever lived through.  I agree entirely with Laval’s Stephen Gordon, who describes the province as the northern equivalent of Argentina: formerly great, and utterly unable to deal with decline.  Kathleen Wynne isn’t quite Cristina Fernandez, of course, the Liberals aren’t quite Peronists, and Toronto FC sure ain’t Boca Juniors.  But there are still enough parallels to make you go “hmmmm”.

Anyways, where do the three parties stand on post-secondary education?  It’s harder than you’d think to tell, because neither opposition party seems to have put a whole lot of thought and care into their platforms and the associated costing (read Jim Stanford’s quite astonishing deconstruction of the Tory jobs numbers here, for instance).  Still, to the extent intentions can be teased out from current documentation, here it is in a nutshell:

Institutional Grants: Assuming the Liberal Platform is the 2014 Budget, then institutions can look forward to four years of one percent increases in government grants.  Neither the Conservatives nor the NDP have promised any increase at all (though see below on NDP tuition promise).

Student Assistance: The New Democrats say they will make provincial loans interest-free.  Assuming this is not retroactive (that is, it only applies to loans issued in 2013-14 onwards) this is a pretty cheap proposal because the province already forgives about two-thirds of the provincial loans it issues.  My calculation suggests that, at most, this costs about $10 million in year one, and evens out after about four years at a cost of between $30 and $40 million.  The Liberal platform offers nothing more than a re-iteration of how great their 30% tuition rebate grant is.  The Conservative platform says it will eliminate the rebate at a savings of $450-500 million.  This, they claim, is in line with recommendations of Drummond commission, but that’s not actually true; what Drummond actually asked was for all aid, including the grant, to be “reshaped” and made more targeted.   Removing the grant won’t actually save what the Conservatives say it will; the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant will necessarily rise somewhat to compensate.

Tuition:  Implicitly, the Liberal position is a continuance of a 3% cap on tuition.  The Conservatives have said nothing at all about tuition during the campaign, but if their White Paper on PSE is any guide, the policy seems to be modest, across-the-board increases, along with selective deregulation.  The NDP has proposed a tuition freeze and appears to offer partial compensation to institutions.  They offer very little detail so it’s hard to tell for sure, but assuming that the aforementioned interest-free loan promise is only for new loans, there will be about $80 million (rising to $240 million over three years) left over with which to compensate institutions for the lack of fee revenue.  If you exclude international student fees and assume no growth in student numbers, it implies that compensation will be about 2% – or, less than what fees would have brought in, so this pledge would not seem, in fact, to compensate institutions fully for the loss of revenue.

Apprentices:  The Tories really like the idea of dramatically expanding the number of apprentices, for reasons that are somewhat vague.  Their thesis is that the reason this cannot be done is because the ratio of apprentices to journeypersons on worksites is too low.  They would like to raise this ratio in order to increase the number of apprentice spots.  What this would do to the quality of instruction/supervision is not addressed.

Financial Summary:  Based on the foregoing, PSE institutions can expect the following from the three parties:

Liberals: a 1% p.a, hike in the grant, plus 3% p.a. on fees, means budget growth of 2%, plus whatever they can grab from international students.  No change on student aid.

NDP: 0% in the grant, 2% as compensation for the fee freeze means 1% growth, plus whatever can be grabbed from international students.  An extra $10M per year in interest subsidies for students.

PC: As far as can be gleaned from their official documents, the increase is 0% in the grant and likely some increase (how much is unknown) in fees.  Allegedly, student aid will fall by $450-$500 million, but in practice somewhat less than that.

Enjoy the franchise.

September 15

The Manitoba Election

Just to show we’re not irretrievably Ontario-centric, we’ll be doing short snapshots of party platforms in all provinces with elections this fall.

First up, my home province of Manitoba.

Choices are stark in the only province to have shot its way into confederation: in the last 11 elections, only one has resulted in a minority government and only one resulted in the Conservatives and New Democrats combined receiving less than 85% of the seats. It’s one or the other (which if nothing else is handy to keep this note below 350 words). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NDP is going big on PSE; holding tuition to inflation, promising 5% annual increases in operating grants to institutions, and increasing student financial aid (the wording in the platform is vague enough to encompass both need- and merit-based grants, but given the party’s recent history, it would be surprising if it were not the former). It’s not a particularly inspiring or visionary platform – more sort of status quo plus a couple of percentage points. But it’s a whole heck of a lot better than most Canadian institutions can expect over the next few years.

The Tories have rolled out a number of specific-yet-vague policies. They want to make sure higher education is “focused on the market,” say they will “support University College of the North to encourage additional training opportunities for Northerners” and “ensure that there is a credit transfer system.” All of which is well and good, but rather beg the question, “How, exactly?”

Intriguingly, the Tories have matched the NDP on holding tuition to inflation. But they’ve not said anything about grants to institutions. Which isn’t surprising since they’re talking about closing a $500 million budget gap plus reducing a raft of taxes. That inevitably means spending cuts, and while post-secondary education might be spared, it’s nevertheless unlikely a Macfayden government would provide institutions with anything like the annual increases the NDP are promising. Seems Canada’s becoming more European by the day: freezing prices commands universal political support but ensuring strong funding to institutions doesn’t. It’s time institutions began paying attention.

 

September 06

A (Not Very Good) Sign of Things to Come

So, Dalton McGuinty has released the Ontario Liberal Party’s platform and its associated costing document.

What’s drawn everyone’s attention so far is this idea of “30% tuition rebates” – understandably so since the cost of the this one is almost a third of all new proposed spending (the miserly sums are a nod towards the fact that the province is essentially broke and can’t afford any new spending).  I’ll go into more depth about these rebates tomorrow in my Globe blog, globecampus.tumblr.com; suffice for the moment to say that the vagueness of some of the wording suggests that this item was a very last-minute inclusion and that there a lot of potential landmines – really big ones, actually – in implementation.

But ignore that for a moment, and take a gander at page nine of the costing document.  It suggests that if the McGuinty Liberals are re-elected then Ontario post-secondary institutions can expect to see their budgets grow from 7.2 billion to 7.9 billion over the course of the next four years.  Now, if you’re thinking; “10% over four years isn’t bad in tough times,” think again – that $700 million increase includes the $486 million set aside for the tuition grants, which of course doesn’t benefit institutions one bit.  It also presumably needs to cover ongoing funding for the 60,000 new places the government has announced  (capital costs for these students are included in the cost estimates but the ongoing operating funding isn’t).  Assuming a nice round $5,000 subsidy per student per year, that’s another $300 million, at which point we have used up the entire budgeted increase.

So, no rise to account for inflation.  No rise to account for increasing salaries.  No rise for anything, really – it’s a straight nominal freeze for institutions regardless of what’s happening to them on the cost side.  And this is from what is probably the most pro-PSE of the three parties in the current legislature.  Any other deal institutions might get is likely going to be worse.  And there’s no get-out on the tuition side.  If anything, the Liberals look set to reduce the annual 5% increase to something closer to 3%.

That means there’s no getting around the need for some serious belt-tightening.  Administrations at Western and Carleton are almost certainly wishing they could get a do-over on their faculty settlements from last year, and I can guarantee that this is going to make a resolution of the current Ontario colleges support staff strike a lot more difficult.  There simply isn’t money around anymore to fund the kind of settlements to which people have become accustomed.

Expect strikes.  Expect hiring freezes.  Expect an exodus of Ontario talent to better-funded universities further west.  This is what a $15 billion deficit will do to you.

August 18

Pick a Number Out of the Air… Any Number Out of the Air

So I see that Colleges Ontario has released its wish list for the provincial election campaign. Some of the recommendations are interesting (e.g., the recommendation to give colleges a greater management role in apprenticeship training), some of it is run of the mill (more money for underfunding, etc). But one recommendation in particular is completely baffling: the suggestion that the government should guarantee that students that switch between public institutions within the province should be able to carry two-thirds of their credits with them.

Now, I’m all in favour of credit mobility, but this is grasping at straws. Why two-thirds? Why not three-quarters? Why not 100%? All Ontario institutions at the moment are governed by a qualifications framework that suggests that the learning outcomes at the diploma level and the degree level are quite different. On what basis should we suddenly understand an equivalence of 1 = .66? Or is Colleges Ontario suggesting we should just ignore the framework altogether?

If there is one thing that the we can learn from the experience of Europe – the Bologna process, the Tuning process and the European Qualifications Framework – it is that mutual recognition of credit has to be based on recognized learning outcomes. It means actually going through some fairly hard and detailed system-wide work to get system-wide agreement about how to define learning outcomes, and from there, to actually discuss how learning outcomes at one level relate to those at another. The European Credit Transfer System, for instance, found a way to make credit transferable by standardizing the amount of “expected student effort” per course.

But we don’t seem to like that kind of thing in Canada. We’re lazy. We think we can just wave a wand and tell people to recognize each others’ credits without examination. Colleges Ontario is hardly alone in this – the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada has repeatedly passed resolutions about mutual recognition of credit across the country. The Government of Ontario was so shy of doing the real work required to get credit mobility that in January it decided to throw a lot of money at colleges and universities to encourage more one-off articulation agreements and call it a victory.

So, by all means, let’s get serious about credit transfer. But please, no more gimmicks. Let’s do the hard work, and get down to the business of defining the real learning outcomes on which an intelligent and durable credit transfer system can be based.

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