Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Immigration

October 12

The Right Way to Argue for Basic Research

The week before last, you may recall, I took issue with the way the country’s illustrious top university presidents (Gerforno, for short) were trying to sell higher education.  Effectively, what they were doing was selling higher education’s research mission by claiming “look, basic research creates jobs” on the basis of a few anecdotes.

The feedback I got was mostly “we really like the portmanteau Gerforno but are not necessarily convinced that there’s any other way to argue for basic research – if all the government wants to hear about is jobs, growth and middle-class families, isn’t that they way Presidents have to sell it?”  And there’s something to this view.  I used to work at Universities Canada; I get their lobbying strategy, and yes, this is exactly what the Presidents are thinking.

My objection is effectively two-fold.  Part of it is that there is too much intellectual dishonesty involved.  While there is a lot of research that ties a country’s overall research spend to long-term GDP growth rates or productivity rates, there is very little to substantiate a link between publicly-funded research or basic research with same.  That’s not to say the link doesn’t exist, just that the research doesn’t exist to prove it.  And second of all, there’s frankly a risk that coming to government year after year and saying “research means higher productivity means more jobs wears thin after awhile.  I mean, it’s been 20 years since the feds created the Canada Foundation for Innovation and really started spending money on research and as far as I know no one’s suggesting that all that money has in fact moved the needle on productivity very much.  Now, if we re-ran the last twenty years to answer the counter-factual “and what would productivity and growth look like if we hadn’t spent all that money” we might find it has in fact been worth it, but it’s easy to understand why politicians and civil servants might be skeptical about this claim.

So now many of you are now thinking “ok smart guy, how would you argue for it”?  Fair challenge.  Here’s my take:

I agree that there needs to be a way to link research to the idea of prosperity, but I think it has to be done in a way which is at once both much more specific and much more general than the way we are doing it now.  More specific in the sense that we have to stop arguing that research on its own is going to deliver growth because that’s a completely nonsensical proposition.  Investment in research is a necessary but insufficient condition.  To credibly link research to the economic engine, the research agenda needs to be tied to a whole bunch of other agendas: a competition agenda, a tax agenda, a regulation agenda, etc.  And the higher education agenda needs to make allies among people in other sectors who can help broaden this agenda.

At the same time, research advocates need to be less specific in the sense that we need to stop claiming that investment in this or that particular new shiny thing is going to lead to breakthroughs/growth/prosperity.  Every time higher ed leaders try to make the research-growth link, they reach for a small handful of specific examples in the life sciences or ICT.  Now maybe those leaders do actually know better and are just cynically pandering to politicians who have a narrow idea of what productivity growth actually is (“It’s new! It’s shiny!  Therefore it must be making Canada more productive!”).  The problem is that even though higher ed leaders are making these arguments in favour of “research” broadly defined, what politicians and policymakers tend to hear is “hey, we should double down on life sciences and ICT”.  Which is pretty much the opposite of what most of the research community wants.

So here’s my pitch: what we want and need is a Smart Canada.  We have no idea what the next big thing is going to be, nor does anyone else.  But our best bet to get ahead of the game is to be at or near the technological frontier in as many fields as possible.  And that means two things: first, it means adopting a very forward-looking posture on digital infrastructure and policy.  I don’t want to bore you with details, but we should be looking to imitate places like Estonia, South Korea and Singapore, and remembering that investing in digital infrastructure & digital public services > investing in digital companies.

Second, it means investing more in supporting and attracting talent.  And by talent I mean primarily people who can expand our country’s capacity in both research and development.  On the development side – that is, mostly in the private sector – that means a whole raft of changes to immigration (Dominic Barton made a number of helpful suggestions in this regard last year).  On the research side – mostly in academia – it means ensuring that we are creating an eco-system that can sustain basic research.  By and large, this means a greater emphasis on i) funding ideas and researchers rather than building infrastructure and ii) spreading the money around more widely than is currently the fashion.

(and yeah, there’s still an issue about ensuring ideas from basic research actually  do find their way into the economy eventually – that problem doesn’t go away.  But it’s kind of a last-mile problem, one you fix after the other pieces are in place).

Basically: support digital, support talent, support researchers and avoid confusing innovation policy with regional development or industrial strategies.  We can’t know for sure how to profit from tomorrow’s technologies, but this is a sure way for us to be as close as possible to the front of the line on new technology.  Think of it as an insurance policy, or if you’ll forgive a particularly ugly phrase, a way of “future-proofing” the country.

I admit it’s not quite as simple an equation as the Shiny Things = Growth algorithm which seems to have entranced the federal innovation ministry and in the short run it may be a tough sell.  But it’s a more durable and ultimately inclusive formula for linking growth and research.  We should give something like it a try.

May 30

Valuing Foreign Degrees

There was an interesting Statscan paper out yesterday that made some fascinating observations about education, immigration, and human capital.  With the totally hip title, The Human Capital Model of Selection and the Economic Outcomes of Immigrants (authors: Picot, Hou and Qiu), it’s a good example both of what Statscan-type analyses do well, and do poorly.

At one level, it’s a very good study.  It uses the Longitudinal Administrative Databank (Statscan’s coolest database – it’s a longitudinal 20% sample of all of the country’s taxfilers) to follow the fates of newcomers to Canada in terms of earnings.  What they find is that in the first few years after entry, the very large wage premiums that “economic class” immigrants (as opposed to “family class”) with degrees used to have over immigrants without degrees has shrunk substantially.  However, over the longer term, the study also finds that educated immigrants have a much steeper earnings slope than those with less education – which is to say that if you shift the lens from “what are immigrants’ labour market experiences in their first three years in Canada”, to “what are immigrants’ labour market experiences in the first ten-to-fifteen years in Canada”, you get a much different, and more positive story.

Now, a lot of people want to know why immigrants with degrees aren’t doing as well in the short term, even if the decline in long-term fortunes isn’t as severe as first thought.  The authors don’t answer this question, but many others have come up with hypotheses.  When you hear stories about immigrants doing worse than they used to in the labour market, even holding education constant, it’s easy to jump to conclusions.  Canadian immigration since the 1980s has increasingly been from Asian countries, so it’s easy enough to conjure up some racism-related theories about the decline.  But I want to point something else out.  Below I reproduce a table from a this recent UNESCO report on higher education systems in Asia.  It shows the distribution of university professors by various levels of qualifications.

Table 1: Highest Level of Higher Education Instructors’ Academic Attainment, Selected Asian Countries







Here’s the problem: Should we really assume that a Bachelor’s degree from Indonesia confers the same skills that one from the US or Europe does?  Probably not.  And yet every single Statscan study that looks at education, immigration, and earnings assumes that a degree is a degree, no matter where it’s earned. I understand why they would do that; how else would one judge equivalencies? And yet choosing to ignore it doesn’t help either.  The reason today’s university-educated immigrants are doing worse than the ones of 30 years ago may simply be that they have lower average levels of skills because of where they went to school.

None of this is to suggest racism isn’t a factor in deteriorating incomes for new immigrants, or that Canadian employers aren’t ridiculous and discriminatory in their demands that new hires have “Canadian experience”.  It’s simply to say that degrees aren’t all made the same, and it would be nice if some of our research on the subject acknowledged this.

November 21

If I were a Human Trafficker…

… I might be looking at Canadian immigration and student visa policies and thinking that there were some pretty nice loopholes to exploit. Because there are some fairly juicy ones out there.

The most obvious loophole – which, in fairness, the government is already moving to close – is that student visas don’t currently require students to attend a particular institution. Hence the stories of students arriving but never attending a school, or of some Ontario institutions “stealing” visa students by pouncing on them at Pearson and convincing them to come to a different college than the one to which they’d been admitted (I have no idea if this one’s true, by the way – but it’s a great yarn).

It’s also how a human trafficker teamed up with an unscrupulous employee at Lakeland College (the college itself was blameless) to issue fake acceptance letters which allowed a group of 60 Polish welders to enter the country. The human trafficker profited on the arrangements by hiring the men out to construction firms at twice the rate he paid the men.

But even with new, tighter student visa rules, potential gaping holes remain. The Canada Experience Class allows graduates of Canadian institutions to gain permanent residence based on:

(1) Obtaining a diploma in four semesters of “full-time study” (as defined by the institutions itself).

(2) Working for one year following graduation as a “retail sales supervisor,” or in a “specialized service occupation” (a classification which includes line cooks).

How difficult do you think it would be, say, in one of the provinces with relatively lax regulation of private institutions, to do a deal with such an institution to create some customized four-semester “full-time” programs? And then do some deals with employers to give these people jobs at which they can be ruthlessly exploited for twelve months? Actually, my guess is you wouldn’t even need to pay them salaries – if their families trusted you enough to get the paperwork done right and get their kid permanent residence status in Canada, they’d probably pay you. I don’t know exactly what the going rate for a pathway to Canadian citizenship is, but I’d guess mid-five figures, at the very least.

If I can come up with this, you can be fairly sure that actual human traffickers have come up with it, too. In fact, something not a million miles from this happened in California last year. The odds that something comparable is happening here are unknowable, but I’d guess they’re high enough that we should worry.

A couple of bad apples have the potential to spoil things for everyone. A little more vigilance on everyone’s part will pay dividends in the long run.

August 20

That International Education Report

The Federal Task Force on International Education reported last week. It was… how to put this? Very Canadian.

In essence, the report reads as though the goal of keeping all major stakeholders sweet trumped the goal of providing clear, bold thinking about Canada’s internationalization strategy. It’s worthy without challenging any conventional thinking. It puts forward an ambitious goal without spending much time working out the details of getting it done (the phrase “stakeholders should co-ordinate” does too much work in this paper). The words “social media” get waved around like a magic wand. The need to prioritize between markets was punted (recommendation 6 essentially says we should prioritize all foreign markets that everyone else already prioritizes).

Take, for instance, the issue of the goals of internationalization. There’s a fundamental tension between the idea of international education as an export product and that of international education as a talent magnet. The former implies that we are in it for the short- and medium-term financial benefits. Like Australia, we’d be selling seats in our very good universities to people from poorer countries so that we can subsidize our own domestic education system. If this is the goal, we can’t be terribly choosy about who comes here—if you’ve got money and a minimum of ability, we’ll take you. One thing it definitely does not imply is scholarships—if you’re in it for the money, subsidies actively miss the point.

The latter idea—internationalization for immigration—implies that money in the short-term is secondary. Basically, like the U.S. before about 2010, we really just want to cherry-pick the best and the brightest from abroad and entice them here with juicy research grants. In this strategy, scholarships make complete sense, but doubling the volume of students to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 450,000 per year does not; it’s quality, not quantity, that matters. Neither, in that case, should we be spending time chasing after high-school students (foreign high-school students who apply to Canadian universities are usually academically weaker than ones who come direct from their own country—their goal in coming here before the age of 18 is to improve their chances of getting admitted).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these strategies, nor even anything wrong with pursuing both simultaneously. But they’re different, and they need to be resourced, pursued and evaluated separately as well, even if they both form part of a larger grand vision. A strong strategy document would have mapped this out carefully; what the task force presented instead was a jumble of worthy goals and promising-but-not-radical tactics. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the report, but there was an opportunity to do much more.