HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Federalism

February 22

Notes for the NDP Leadership Race

As contestants start to jump into the federal NDP leadership race, it’s only a matter of time before someone starts promising free tuition to all across the land.  Now, I’m not going to rehash why free tuition is both regressive and undesirable (though if you really want to take a gander through the archives on free tuition, have a look here).  But I do think I can do some public service by talking about federalism and higher education, or rather: what the feds can and cannot do in this sphere.

The entire Canadian constitution is based around a compromise on education dating from 1864.  Upper Canada came to the Quebec conference with one overriding aim: representation by population in Parliament, so that their superior population would give them the most seats in Parliament.  Lower Canada agreed if and only if a second, local, and equal tier of government was created which would have jurisdiction over education and health, because over-their-dead-bodies were a bunch of (mostly) Orangemen going to get their hands on a hallowed set of (mostly) French catholic institutions.

There’s nothing in there that stops Ottawa’s ability to give money to individuals for the purpose of education.  This is why, despite all the sturm und drang, Quebec never put up a legal fight to the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation: Ottawa can give cash to whoever it wants, whenever it wants.  But when it comes to dealing with institutions, their ability to direct money to areas of provincial jurisdiction is subject to provincial veto.  The provinces accept (with limits, in Quebec’s case) that the feds can flow money to institutions for the purposes of academic research.  Hence the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.  They do not accept that it can send money to institutions for operating purposes.

(Historical footnote: there was a period where nine out of ten of them were prepared to accept this.  Back in the mid-1950s, there was a ruse in which the federal government handed tens of millions of dollars every year (a lot back then) to Universities Canada – then known as the National Conference of Canadian Universities and Colleges – which it would then distribute to institutions.  In theory this was a canny work-around to the constitution.  In practice, it stalled because Duplessis blew a gasket and told Quebec universities that if they touched a dime of that money, he’d take it out of their provincial funding.  Pierre Elliott Trudeau then wrote a wonderful article in la Cite called “Federal Grants to Universities” explaining why Duplessis was 100% right and St. Laurent was in kookooland, constitutionally speaking.  It’s a great article, read it if you can.  Anyway, this arrangement lasted into the 1960s, when the feds got out of this arrangement and moved into per-capita grants instead.  And that door is now shut: there is no going back through it.)

Politically, there is a fantasy shared by some on the political left that the federal government can simply re-acquire policy leadership in the post-secondary field by passing an act of Parliament and adding great wodges of cash to existing transfers… with strings attached.  I’ve previously (here) torn a strip off the idea of a federal Post-Secondary Education Act, but let me focus here specifically on the idea that a generalized fiscal transfer could actually affect tuition fees.  Let’s just imagine how that discussion would go.

Ottawa: we want to give each of you money so that you bring your tuition fees to zero.  Quebec and Newfoundland, your fees are about $3000, so we’ll give you that per student…

Ontario: Our fees are $7500 a student or so.  Fork it over.

Quebec and Newfoundland: Hold it.

I could go on here about the nuances of fiscal federalism, but basically that’s the problem in a nutshell (for my American readers: in some less disastrous timeline, Hillary Clinton is facing exactly this problem as she attempts to implement her free tuition promise for public universities). There are ways the federal government could bribe provinces into lowering tuition.  In fact, something like that actually happened in Nova Scotia as a result of the NDP-Liberal budget deal in the minority Parliament of 2005.  But you wouldn’t necessarily get them to lower by an equal amount, and you definitely wouldn’t get them to go to zero because they have vastly different starting points.

So, here’s the quick heads-up to all prospective New Democrat leadership candidates: even if it wanted to, the Government of Canada has no sensible way to eliminate tuition nationally.  If you do manage to form a government, this will be broken promise #1.  So don’t promise it.  Instead, think about ways to support students which don’t involve tuition.  There is a whole whack of things you could do with student assistance instead.  And the best part is: if you use student aid as a tool instead of tuition, you can channel aid to those who actually need it most.

May 06

What Ottawa Spends

The Parliamentary Budget Officer did everyone a solid yesterday by publishing a really helpful compilation of federal government expenditures on higher education. According to the publication, the Government of Canada in 2013-14 spent $12.3 billion on post-secondary education (not including money for apprenticeships, training programs or labour market agreements; that includes $5.1 billion for “human capital measures”, which is mostly Canada Student Loans and Tax Expenditures of various kinds, $3.5 billion for research, three-quarters of which is from the granting councils and the remainder through various departmental programs, and $3.7 billion through the Canada Social Transfer, which is a theoretically earmarked.

The graph below shows the evolution in expenditures in nominal dollar. While the growth is therefore somewhat exaggerated because of inflation, it’s interesting to note that overall, expenditures increased by a third, from $9 billion to $12 billion, between 2005-6 and 2013-14. This would have been a very good talking point for the Tories in the last election; it’s a bit of a mystery why they didn’t use it.

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(In case you’re wondering what the bump in human capital formation spending is in 2009-10 and 2010-11, I’m pretty sure it’s the cost of the transitional measures relating to the end of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation).

The report has a nice little projection about what future expenditures in post-secondary are going to be. The PBO seems to think there’s going to be a lot of cost growth because of an upswing in student numbers. I think that’s somewhat unlikely given the demographics; on the other hand, I think there will be cost growth as an increasing number of students figure out that they are eligible for free money under the new student aid arrangements. So it’s probably a wash. In any event, here’s what’s PBO thinks the future looks like:

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The one bit of the report I find a little off is the section on who is using tax credits. The problem with analyzing the use of tax credits is that it combines parental use of tax credits with student use of tax credits. This is a problem because students are concentrated in the bottom income deciles. So if the child of a millionaire uses tax credits, it’s counted as being used by Canadians from the bottom quintile of income, which let’s be honest is a bit misleading. But still, overall, this makes a powerful point: tax expenditures are skewed to the wealthier end of society and it’s an awfully good thing that they are being phased out in order to fund poorer students.

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(Remember though: the reason tax benefits are skewed to upper quintiles isn’t because they are worth more to those individuals. These are credits, not deductions. No, the reason they are skewed is because the children of parents from upper-income quartiles are that much more likely to attend higher education and especially universities. In other words, *all* spending on higher education gets distributed this way. Which is a prime reason why education should not be free – this is the way the benefits of such a move would be skewed).

Anyways, there’s nothing special or complicated about the PBO analysis. It’s just really nice to have all this stuff well documented and presented in a straightforward manner in one place. Kudos.

(Note: I will be taking a break from blogging next week. Back on May 16)

December 03

Solving the Fees Problem

So, here’s the problem: Canadian governments are mostly broke.  Even the ones that didn’t look broke a couple of months ago (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland) are now very definitely broke (especially Newfoundland).  There’s no money for PSE.  Everybody knows that.

So, equally, everyone knows that the only way institutions are going to avoid a crunch is either by turning themselves into finishing schools for the Asian middle class, or by charging domestic students higher tuition fees.  No one genuinely thinks the former is a sensible long-term solution, and yet that’s the way we’re heading because Canadian families and the politicians who represent them are resistant to the idea of a rise in fees.

To be clear, resistance does not arise because anyone really thinks fees deter access.  Even the dopiest politician knows that participation rates today are over 50% higher than they were 20 years ago when nominal tuition was about half what it is now (certain student groups are indeed that dopey, but that’s another story).  No, the reason people don’t want more fees is because too many people think that what universities and colleges are offering isn’t worth what they’re charging.

This is of course insane because, as we know, Canadians, on aggregate, are paying Net Zero Tuition for post-secondary education.  We have $7.2 billion going out every year in various forms of aid – exactly equal to what universities and colleges charge in tuition to domestic students – and apparently no one notices.  The focus is exclusively on the sticker price, never on the net price, which in many cases is negative.  This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the opacity of our student aid system.  We prevent students from working out their student aid package before they apply, and then we hand out as much of our aid as possible at the back end where no one will notice it.

It’s madness.  And it has to change.  We need to make it a lot more obvious what a great deal people are getting.  We need to make it so that when governments spend money to make it easier for people to go to school, the people being helped actually realize they are being helped.

This is going to require coordination.  Our confusing system is a product of the fact that many different players (feds, provinces, institutions) designed it so that it met their own administrative needs and desires for visibility, not the needs of students.  We need all of them to agree to make it less complicated, more predictable, and more visible.  That means, above all, ditching tax credits and either turning them into (hopefully targeted) grants or transferring them to institutions in return for a reduction in tuition.

Can’t be done, you say, because governments like to take credit for tax expenditures?  Tosh.  It’s abundantly clear that the public has no idea the credits even exist, so governments could hardly do worse than what they do now.  Besides, there’s precedent to show it’s good politics: in 2012, Quebec ditched some tax credits in order to pay for improved student aid, and back in 1999, Manitoba explicitly ditched a refundable tax credit to pay for a tuition roll-back (meaning the roll-back cost the government nothing, and students were in fact no better off at the end of the day, but boy did the NDP make hay out of that one).

So it’s doable.  But someone has to get the provinces and the feds to sit down together to make them do it.  The only people who can do this are the institutions: specifically, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CIC).  Only they have the clout to get the provinces and the federal government in the same room to hammer out a deal.  And it’s eminently in their interest to do so.  Until Canadians rediscover what a fantastically good deal they actually have in their higher education system, the likelihood of more funds heading their way is pretty slight.

March 28

A Reminder Why Education, Skills, and Training are Provincial Responsibilities

We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years talking about skills, skilled trades, skilled personnel, BAs vs. welders, jobs without people/people without jobs, and all kinds of other nonsense about education, training, and the labour market.  And to a large extent, when we argue about this stuff (and I’m including myself here), we’re arguing based on national-level data.

But the labor market isn’t national.

A recent paper by Kelly Foley and David Green made this point quite strongly.  This paper – delivered at an IRPP conference a few weeks ago – makes a number of important observations about education and the labour market, which I’ll have to save for another day.  But one of the most important points it makes is about returns to education in different parts of Canada.

The full paper isn’t available online, but I’d direct everyone’s attention the powerpoint, which is available here.   Slide 4 reminds us of the following:

1)      Among 25-34 year olds, return-on-investment for graduate degrees is much lower for men than for women.

2)      Among men, but not women in the same age group, the gap between the rate of return on bachelor’s degrees and college diplomas has narrowed sharply over the past decade or so.

3)      In fact, rates of return on all types of education are just a heck of a lot better for young women than men.  Startlingly so.

What’s all this gender stuff that got to do with regionalism in the labour market?  Well, take a look at slide 5, which breaks down male earnings by region.  In Ontario and Quebec, returns to education are what you’d expect: higher for graduate degrees than for Bachelors, which in turn are higher than for college diplomas.  But it turns out that both in the Atlantic and in the West, the returns to college education are actually higher than the returns to university.  Indeed, in western Canada they are even higher than they are for graduate studies.

I think it’s safe to assume this isn’t because universities outside Quebec and Ontario are uniquely bad or their colleges uniquely good.  Rather, it’s because labour markets in these regions are looking for fundamentally different sets of skills.  And as far as entry level workers are concerned, it’s pretty clear that they’re asking for more of the type produced by colleges, and less from universities.

And this brings us back to the national debate.  A lot of the rhetoric around skilled trades and the uselessness of Bachelor’s degrees (e.g. Ken Coates, much of the Conservative party) is coming from western Canada, where this actually fits the available data.  Equally, the firing back on the same issues (e.g. me, among others) is coming from central Canada, where this also fits the available data.  To a large extent we’re just talking past each other; both correct locally, but less so nationally (I’ll try to be more careful about this in the future).

But here’s the takeaway point: the fact that the labour market rewards different types of education differently in different parts of the country is exactly the reason the Feds’ involvement in education and training should be as minimal as possible.  We are simply too diverse a country for one-size fits-all policy tools.  Kudos to Foley and Green for reminding us of that.