HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Liberal Party

September 22

Twenty Years Ago Sunday

Five years ago I wrote the following blog, under the headline “fifteen years ago today”.  I think it’s worth running again (with a couple of minor alterations).

On September 24th, 1997, Jean Chrétien rose in the House of Commons to present his reply to the Speech from the Throne. About half-way in, he noted casually that there would likely be a financial surplus that year (a miracle, considering where we’d been in 1995). And he was planning to blow it on something called “Millennium Scholarships.”

Until that exact moment, his caucus had been in the dark about the idea. Indeed, cabinet had been in the dark until the day before. So, too, had the Privy Council Office – Chrétien had deliberately kept them out of the loop because he knew they’d hate it on section 93 grounds and try to top him.

The way the project was pursued in the run-up to the 1998 budget didn’t do the Foundation any favours. There were two basic problems. The first was that it wasn’t clear for months whether these were going to be merit scholarships or need-based grants (in French, the word “bourse” covers both). The public servants at HRDC and Paul Martin wanted it to be about need because they saw the political hay people were making about increasing student debt (note: unlike today, this was a time when debt actually was increasing quite rapidly); Pierre Pettigrew and the Finance mandarins wanted it to be about merit, but for different reasons. Pettigrew has his eye on Quebec and its not unreasonable complaint that the feds were duplicating a provincial program and thought a more merit-based program would take the edge off that argument.  Finance, I think, wanted merit because the top folks there wanted a culture shift in Canada to promote merit (they were also pretty much all Queen’s grads, as far as I could tell, which may or may not explain the fixation).

In the end, 95% was distributed “primarily” on the basis of need, while 5% went to merit. This mix was about right; broad fears of rising tuition and debt required a policy response that emphasized need. Conversely, had more been allocated to merit, the Excellence Awards the Foundation eventually developed would have been devalued – part of what made them special was the fact that they weren’t available to the tens of thousands of students originally envisaged.

The second problem was that no one in Ottawa – including HRDC – really understood how student aid worked. The result was a commitment to give the Foundation’s need-based aid to students with “the highest need” – that is, to exactly the students who already received grants from the provinces. The result was that Millennium awards ended up saving provincial aid programs a bucket-load of money. The Foundation did its best to get provinces to re-invest that money in things that would benefit students. Apart from in Nova Scotia it was reasonably successful though it didn’t always seem that way to the students who were bursary recipients. With some justification, those students were sometimes disappointed; Eddie Goldenberg, the Prime Minister’s Senior Political Advisor whose views on fed-prov relations were…well, let’s just say they lacked subtlety…was apoplectic.

This isn’t the place to recount the Foundation’s history (for that, I recommend Silver Donald Cameron’s book A Million Futures). All you really need to know is that for ten years, the Foundation ran a national social program that wasn’t based in Ottawa and wasn’t one-size fits all. It ran a merit program that was much more than just money-for-marks, and was rigorous about using empirical research to improve our understanding of how to improve access to higher education. It was just a different way of doing student aid.

Now, I’m biased, of course.  I worked at the Foundation.  I met my wife there.  Had Chrietien not risen in the House that day, my daughter literally would not exist and the world would be deprived of its smartest and most beautiful 8 year-old ballet dancer/sumo enthusiast.  But even if none of that were true, I’d still stand by my final comment from five years ago:

The Foundation was created on the back of a cocktail napkin, and suffered from a profoundly goofy governance structure. But within the boundaries of that cocktail napkin, a lot of neat stuff happened. And even though some of what was best about the Foundation has been taken up by the federal government since its demise, the country’s still worse off now that the Foundation’s gone.

March 31

The Meaning of Zero

I’ve had a lot of time over the past week to think about the federal budget. And the more I think about it, the more baffled I am about the decision to completely stuff the granting councils. I think it is either a sign of real political ineptness, or that something pretty awful is in the pipeline.

It’s not as though the Liberals are averse to spending on Science, per se. The budget dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on Artificial Intelligence, Cleantech, Superclusters, what have you. And it’s not as though they have a problem with that money going to college and universities: the AI money was clearly headed to McGill, Toronto and Alberta, winning supercluster applications are going to need universities as partners (in a rational world they should all have also polytechnics/colleges to provide technical skills training as well, but I’m not totally convinced Industry Canada understands this yet).

So why not the granting councils?

Yeah, yeah, don’t say it: the Naylor Report. Because they are waiting for the Naylor Report (which has mysteriously disappeared) and they don’t want to spend any money until it’s out because there might be a big shake-up.

(Related note: the Science Minister, Kristy Duncan, was on my Ottawa-Toronto flight this week. I asked her when the Naylor Report would be published. She said read page 88 of the budget [which says the report will be released “in the coming months]. I asked what was taking so long. She said they had just had so many consultations, it took time to read them all. I said yeah, but Naylor submitted the report on time in December, right? She said – and I quote – “well, that’s a position”. Make of this what you will, but for me at least it did not dispel the impression that games are being played.)

The problem with this thesis is that imminent future program change wasn’t a barrier to spending in some other program areas. Youth Employment Services and the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, both got very significant increases in their budgets despite the fact that the budget indicated that both would be subject to change in the near future. In those cases, the budget was written so as to show a budget bump for two years and two years only, to indicate that the government didn’t think the old structures would still be around.

So why did the government push for temporary budget boosts in other areas but not the councils? I am not sure, but I don’t see a credible answer that says “once Naylor is published the taps will flow”. I think a more likely answer is this: maybe this government doesn’t actually like granting councils as a policy tool any more than the last one did. No, there’s no “war on science” – though frankly, if it were a Conservative government that had hidden the Naylor Report and given the councils 0%, I’m pretty sure we’d be hearing that phrase 24/7.   

But I think it’s dawning on people that federal disenchantment with granting councils is not a partisan thing. The Chretien/Martin government may eventually have been good to councils (1995 budget excepted), but they also set up and funded a whole bunch of different science agencies (Brain Canada, Genome Canada, etc) precisely because they thought they knew better than the councils where science money should be spent. The Harper government wasn’t much into creating new agencies, yet was pretty consistent in funding big science projects every year outside the council structure.

One last piece of data: Universities Canada couldn’t even muster up a word on the councils’ behalf on budget night – it was all “yay MITACS and yay future Naylor report”. Seriously, their press release was embarrassing. Possibly someone in government leaned on them to give positive publicity “or else” (this has been known to happen), but possibly also that in the grand scheme of things, as long as money is coming in via clusters or AI or whatever, university administrations don’t give two hoots about the councils either. And if they don’t, why would the government?

From all of this I draw two conclusions.

One, even if the Naylor Report does result in more money for Science (and I’m not sure we can take that for granted), it’s not obvious that the councils will be the recipients of the money. The belief in Ottawa that granting councils “don’t get the job done” is deep; there is a bipartisan consensus that politicians and senior public servants, collectively, can manage the science enterprise better than scientists.

Two, Universities Canada is apparently deeply comfortable with this situation, even if not all its members are. For there to be a change in policy direction, someone is going to need to challenge the prevailing science discourse directly in Ottawa. And if it Universities Canada isn’t going to do it, it will have to be done by scientists themselves organizing and representing themselves independently in Ottawa. Sure, CAUT claims to do this, but ask a random sample of active scientists if they think this is the right vehicle for Science representation and you’d probably struggle to get into double-digits. Scientists themselves have to organize this fight, and quickly.

Three, it’s possible I’m entirely mistaken about this. Maybe the government just goofed in its messaging and there really is a pot of gold at the end of the Naylor rainbow, and Universities Canada’s behind-the-scenes work (of which I assume there is a great deal) will pay off handsomely. But honestly, at this point: would you bet on that?

March 29

Conflicting Views on Research Funding

Every year on budget night, we at HESA Towers publish a graph tracking granting council expenditures in real dollars.  This year it looks like this:

Tri-council Funding Envelopes

Research Council Funding.png

Some people really like the graph and pass it around and re-tweet it because it shows that whatever governments say about their love for science and innovation, it’s not showing up in budgets.  Others (hi Nassif!) dislike it because it doesn’t do justice to how badly researchers are faring under the current environment.  Now, these critics have a point, but I think some of the criticism misunderstands why government funds research in the first place.

The critique of that graph usually makes some combination of the following points:

  1. Enrolments have gone way up over the past fifteen years, so there are more profs and hence more people needing research grants.
  2. At some councils, at least, the average grant size is increasing, sometimes quite significantly.  That’s good for those who get grants, but it means the actual number of awards is decreasing at the same time as the number of people applying is increasing.
  3. In addition to an increasing number of applicants, the number of applications per applicant also seems to be increasing, presumably as a rational response to increasing competition (two lottery tickets are better than one!).

Now, from the point of view of researchers, what all this means is that “steady funding in real dollars” is irrelevant.  On the ground, faculty are having to spend more time on grant proposals, for fear of not receiving one.  The proportion receiving awards is falling, which has an effect on scientific progression, particularly when it happens to younger faculty.  So it’s easy to see why the situation has academic scientists in a panic, and why they’d prefer a graph that somehow shows how applicant prospects of receiving grants are nosediving.   And that graph would as be as undeniably true as the one we publish.

But, from the perspective of Ottawa, I think the answer might well be: “not our problem”.

Here’s why.  The main reason governments get into the research game is to solve a market failure.  The private sector can’t capture all the benefits of basic research because of spillovers, so they underinvest in it.  Therefore, governments invest to fill the gap.  This has been standard economic theory for over 50 years now.

So, to be blunt, government is there to buy a particular amount of science that is in the public interest given corporate underinvestment.  It is not there to provide funds so that the academic career ladder works smoothly.

Provinces and universities decided to hire more science profs to deal with a big increase in access?  Great!  But did anyone ask the feds if they’d be prepared to backstop those decisions with more granting council funds?  Nope. They just assumed the taps would keep flowing.  Academia decided to change the rules of pay and promotion in such a way that emphasized research, thus creating huge new demand for more research dollars.  Fantastic!  But did anyone ask the feds to see how they’d cope with the extra demand?  Nope.  Just hope for the best.

There’s a case, of course, to say that the federal government, via the granting councils, should be more concerned than it is with the national pipeline for scientific talent.  What’s happening right now could really cause a lot of good young scientists to either flee their careers or their country (or both), and that’s simply a waste of expensively-produced talent.  But for the feds to thoroughly get into the business of national science planning requires provinces and institutions to give the councils a more direct role in institutional hiring decisions and the setting of tenure standards.  I bet I can guess how most people would feel about that idea.

So could the government put more money into granting councils?  Sure.  Could some councils make things better by reversing their Harper-era decisions to go with larger average grant sizes?  Yes, obviously.  But let’s remember that at least part of the problem is that institutions and academics have taken a lot of decisions over the past twenty years about what research and scientific careers should look like with very little thought to the macro fiscal implications, under the assumption that the feds and the councils would be there to bail them out.

That needs to change, too.

February 09

Skills and Youth

What with the Advisory Council on Growth’s paper on skills, and the Expert Panel on Youth Employment wrapping up, public policy is suddenly back to a focus on skills – and in particular what skills youth should have.  So, let’s talk about that.

While some in the federal government will state forcefully that they are not – repeat NOT- going to be like the previous government and tell students what fields they should study (read: welding), literally every time skills come up they start babbling about coding, tech and whatnot.  So as near as I can tell, this government is just as directive about skills as the previous one, it’s just that a) they’re pushing a different set of skills and b) they aren’t actively trashing programs of study they see as less valuable, the way the Tories did with sociology.

The Liberals’ urge to get everyone tech-ing is understandable, if shallow.  What’s the one part of the youth labour market where kids are doing better than ever?  Engineering and computer science.  Are tech-enabled industries the wave of the future?  Well, kinda, depending on your definition of what that means.  But let’s think a little bit more about what that means.

Consider what I would call “hard” tech skills: the people who actually do code or computer science for a living. There’s just not that many of them around.  And here’s a secret: even if Canada becomes some kind of massive tech haven, there still won’t be that many around.  It’s simply not a high-employment industry.  Defining it really ambitiously and assuming high rates of growth, these jobs might equal five percent of the labor force.  So, yeah, let’s increase the size of engineering and CS programs, a bit.  But that’s not a skills solution for the economy as a whole.  We need something for the other 95% of the population.

Now, there’s a broader set of tech skills that matter to a broader subsection of the population.  Some people call these “coding skills” but it’s actually closer to digital literacy.  Basically, people who work with databases all the time – whether they are in accounting or sales or advertising or what have you – can become more productive if they better understand the logic behind databases and have some understanding of how algorithms might improve their use.  Artists and designers can command higher salaries if they have some digital skills.  To be clear – this doesn’t mean we need more credentials in these areas.  It means we need more people in the workforce who possess thee skills as part of their toolkit.  They could learn this stuff through coding schools or “bootcamps”, or maybe more colleges and universities could integrate these skills into existing programs but more likely most people are going to acquire these skills informally.  Which is fine, as long as they have them.

But still, put those two sets of tech skills together and you’re covering maybe a quarter of the labour force.  And that’s not good enough.  What are we going to do for everyone else?

No one has a crystal ball that can help understand what jobs of the future look like.  But it does seem the case that if technology is going to be as disruptive as the tech-boosters think it will be, then a lot of jobs are going to be automated.  In fact, human employment will be increasingly be concentrated in things that computers or robots cannot do.  And in the main, those are either jobs that require a wide variety of physical skills or jobs that involve judgement and empathy.  Last year, Geoff Colvin wrote a book on this subject called Humans are Underrated, which is worth reading if you’re into this topic.

Put it this way.  We’ve got a minority of our future workers who will be working hard to make better robots and algorithms to do things humans can’t do (at least not near the price computers can do it).  But we’re also going to have a majority of our future workers who are going to have to work hard at making themselves unreplaceable by machines by employing very human skills like empathy and narrative.  Why in the name of all that’s holy would we focus our energies just on the first group of workers?  Why not acknowledge what’s actually happening in the labour market and say: we’re going to work on both?

A final point about skills and youth.  As I noted back here something really does seem to have changed in the labour market after 2008.  Full-time enrolment rates in particular have shifted downwards – but this is much more pronounced among the younger age groups (15-19) than it is among older ones (25-29).  This is consistent with a theory of skills-biased technological change: younger people have fewer skills than older ones.  But be careful here in equating the acquisition of skills with obtaining an education.  Employers want people who can get a job done: by and large when they talk about “skills shortages” what they actually mean is “experienced worker shortages”, because to them acquired tacit knowledge matter at least as much formally-acquired knowledge.   To put that a little more concisely: it’s not just that education is more important than ever, but experience is also more important than ever, especially for young people.

I know the Expert Panel will be thinking about these issues, because they kindly invited me to a roundtable event last week and we talked about all this (thanks, Vass!).  But the people who really need to be thinking about these issues are colleges and universities – perhaps more the latter than the former.  Study after study for the last two decades have shown that the number one reason students attend university is to get a god job.

As I’ve just run through, jobs are about experience and skills.  Could be tech skills, could be empathy/narrative skills: either is fine.  Slowly, institutions are coming around to the idea that experience matters and so work-integrated learning is expanding.  Great.  Hard tech skills?  We’ve got a lot of that covered.  Integrating second-level tech skills into other programs in Arts, Science and business.  Getting there (in some places, anyway).  But the narrative/empathy stuff?  I know some people blather on about how humanities give you these skills somehow by osmosis, but do they really?  Who’s checking?  How is it being measured?  And why on earth would we want to limit that stuff to the Liberal Arts anyway?

If I were a university President, these are the kinds of things I’d be asking my Deans to think about.

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 16

Election 2015: Last Thoughts

Voting day Monday.  So before y’all head out to the polls, here are a few last thoughts on each party’s position on post-secondary education, science, and innovation.

One: The Green platform is a vacuous embarrassment.  If you’re voting on higher ed issues, do not vote for this.

Two: It is an excellent thing in this election that all three major parties decided to focus their PSE initiatives specifically on families from below-median incomes.  The Tories are doing it through targeted measures on educational savings, the NDP and Liberals are doing it through new student grants (with the latter paying for it by taking tax credits away, thus actually raising prices for richer families).  No universal tax credits.  No schemes to lower tuition.  Just intelligent, targeted programming.  I’m immensely heartened by this.  It implies there is hope yet.

Three: Well, sort of… because pretty much all of the Science/Innovation policy on offer is pretty depressing.  Yes, lots of good stuff from Liberals and New Democrats about restoring freedom to science, creating various types of official science councils/advisors, restoring the long-form census, etc. etc., but when you get right down to it what’s on offer is this:

Liberals: hundreds of millions of dollars to incubators and accelerators.  Nothing to universities or colleges.

Conservatives: lots of tiny research promises: $24M for advanced manufacturing hubs, $45M to Brain Canada, $150M to the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.  $4.5 Million for – I cannot believe I am writing this – Lobster Biomass Research (clearly, the Tories are in thrall to “Big Crustacean”).  Some of this might end up at universities (the Brain Canada money, for instance), but this is small bones.

NDP: The only party to actually suggest giving money to the granting councils (yay!), they budgeted a grant total of $55 million for the next four years.  Or about 25% of what inflation is likely to be (boo!), meaning the real value of council funding will continue to fall.

Greens: negative money for research because they’re going to shut down anything related to GMOs or Atomic Energy.  Because, you know, evidence-based policy-making. (Did I mention not to vote Green on higher ed issues?)

All of which is to say, scientists who want to communicate the need for more investment in basic research need to go back to the drawing board. Because on this evidence, something is going seriously wrong.

Four:  Nobody even mentioned the idea that we should touch transfer payments and get money to institutions that way. If you grew up watching politics in the 80s and 90s (as I did), this is almost unfathomable.  But it possibly represents a matured understanding of how the Federation is supposed to work.

Five: If you rank the parties on how much money they want to throw at students, access, and PSE institutions, it would look like this:

1) Green – several bazillion dollars (who’s counting?).

2) NDP – somewhere north of $1 billion.

3) Conservatives  – somewhere south of $100M.

4) Liberals – In net terms, according to their own manifesto $0 (in practice possibly higher than that).  But a more effective re-arrangement of existing dollars.

One probably shouldn’t get too depressed by this. Thinking back to the Tories: they’ve never campaigned on more money for research, but they always found a way to come up with something in every budget.  It might not have been quite what people wanted, and it might not have been as large as people would have liked, but there was never nothing.  Manifestos give you the baseline, not the entirety of a new government’s plans.  Improvisation happens.  Science can still get more than is on-offer here; it just needs to up its game.

Go vote.  And to Hull-Aylmer’s Greg Fergus, the best PSE candidate in this election: in bocca al lupo.

October 07

Party Platform Analysis: Science and Innovation

In the platform analyses I’ve done so far (for the Greens, the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Liberals), I’ve focused mostly on the stuff around student finance.  But in doing so, I’ve left out certain platform elements on science and innovation, specifically from the Liberals and the New Democrats.

There are some pretty broad similarities between the two parties’ programs, even though they package them somewhat differently.  Both are long on promises about process.  The Liberals will appoint a Chief Science Officer; the NDP will go one better, and appoint an Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer AND create a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.  Both promise to “unmuzzle” scientists; both promise to bring back the long-form census (which I personally find irritating – shouldn’t we at least try to move into 21st century with an administrative register?).  Both promise to make government data “open”; additionally, the Liberals promise to ensure their policies are “evidence-based”.  The word “independence” shows up a lot: Liberals want to give it to Statscan, without actually specifying what the word means; the NDP want to restore it to the granting agencies, without specifying what the word means.  They also want to re-establish scientific capacity in government, but apparently aren’t allocating any money for it, so you know, take that with a grain of salt.

The differences, such as they are, are about where to spend the lucre.  The Liberals have set aside an extra $600 million over three years for an “Innovation Agenda”, which will “significantly expand support to incubators and accelerators, as well as the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support”.  This, apparently, is meant to “create successful networks like the German and American partnerships between business government and university/college research”.

Genuinely, I have no idea what they are talking about.  Which German and American programs?  The Fraunhofer institute?  The Tories already did that when they converted NRC to an applied research shop.  As near as I can tell, this seems to be innovation-speak for “let’s give money to middle-men between academia and business”.  Which is not promising.  I mean, even assuming that early-stage commercialization is the real bottleneck in our innovation system (and where’s the evidence for that, evidence-based policy guys?), why is this the right way to go about fixing it?  Weren’t the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research supposed to do the same thing, albeit from another angle?  Shouldn’t we – you know, wait for some evidence about what works and what doesn’t?

The Liberals also are promising another $100 million over three years to the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which would normally make me want to tear my eyes out, but apparently it’s all going into something that is meant to mimic the US Small Business Innovation and Research Program, which does tend to get high marks.  But, significantly, there is not an extra cent for educational institutions, and not an extra cent for the granting councils.

The New Democrats, on the other hand, are talking much smaller sums: $105 million over four years to “support researchers in post-secondary institutions”.  A helpful NDP staffer has clarified for me that this actually means money to the granting councils, which would make the NDP the only party to commit to more council funding.  That said, unless inflation dips below 1% (unlikely, but not impossible), that amount is not enough to cover inflation.

So, take your pick here.  On non-financial aspects of their policies, the two parties are essentially singing off the same sheet.  Financially, the Liberals have more money on the table, but none of it appears to be heading to institutions.  The NDP has a much smaller package, which will benefit researchers via the granting councils, but not by a whole lot.

Back next Friday with a final summary of the election and higher education.

October 06

Party Platform Analysis: The Liberals

Two quick things at the outset.  First, this will only look at the Liberal’s Monday announcement on student financing.  Tomorrow, I’ll look at their science/innovation policy in conjunction with that of the NDP, which apparently released a similar platform in conditions of complete secrecy last week.  Second, in the interest of full disclosure: I was asked by the Liberals to comment on a draft of their platform a few weeks ago.  I did so, as I would have for any party had they asked.  Judging by what I see in their platform, they took at least some of my comments into account.  So bear that in mind when reading this analysis.

The main plank of the Liberal announcement is that they are planning to increase grants for low income students by $750 million, rising to $900 million by the end of the mandate (which more than doubles the total amount; however,it’s not clear if this increase includes alternative compensation to Quebec… if it does not, add another $200 million).  The Canada Student Grant for Students from Low-Income Families (CSG-LI) will rise in value from $2,000/year to $3,000/year, and the Canada Student Grant for Students from Middle-Income Families (CSG-MI) will rise in value from $800 to $1,800.  The thresholds for both will be increased, meaning more students will receive the low-income grant, and more students with incomes in the $80-100K family income range (precise values not set, but this looks like about what they are going to do) will receive the middle-income grant.  In addition, the Liberals propose raising the repayment threshold (i.e. the level below which borrowers in repayment are not required to make payments on their loans) from just over $20,000 to $25,000.  It’s unclear what this would cost (take-up rate is uncertain), but a good bet would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.

So, a $1 billion promise.  Except the Liberals are promising that this will all cost the taxpayer… nothing.  And the reason for that is that the Liberals have decided they will axe the education amount and textbook tax credits (something I, and, others have been suggesting for many years – for instance here).  Now, I actually don’t think this will quite cover the entire spending bill, but it will be within $100 million, or so (basically, it will cover the grants, but not the loan threshold change).

However, what this means is that the plan creates winners and losers.  The value of those federal tax credits for full-time students is $558/year (for part-time students it is $168).  Everybody will lose that amount.  For those who currently receive the CSG-LI, and those who receive CSG-MI and remain in the CSG-MI bracket after the thresholds move, the extra $1,000/year the Liberals are offering means they will be better off by $442 (but they will also benefit by getting the entirety of their $1,000 sooner in the form of grants, rather than delayed in the form of tax relief).  For those in the CSG-MI moving into the CSG-LI category, the net benefit will be $1,642.  For those who currently do not receive grants, but will now become eligible for CSG-MI, the net benefit will be $1,242.

So there are winners.  But there are losers, too.  Families with incomes over $100,000 (or so) will simply be out that $558.  And part-time students, who are ineligible to receive CSGs, will also be out $168.  But this is what happens when you try to do big policy without spending (many) additional dollars.  And there’s always the risk that they will come under political fire for “raising taxes”, which is arguably what cutting tax credits amounts to.

So, full marks for creativity here: these policies would make the funding system somewhat more progressive (in a slightly quirky way).  And full marks for putting out a backgrounder that makes it clear that these moves will create costs for provinces (their co-operation will be needed in order to raise the loan threshold) that need to be mitigated, even though the Liberals are vague on how this will actually work.

But it should be noted that by their own claim (which, as I said above, is probably not quite true), Liberals are choosing not to invest another dime in the sector, which puts them last among political parties in new spending commitments.  As pleasing as the re-arrangement of inefficient subsidies is, wouldn’t it have been better if they had added some funds on top of it?

February 21

What a Trudeau Education Policy Might Look Like

So, Justin Trudeau says one of his major policy priorities is to “put more money into education and training”.  As with all Liberal policies these days, it’s short on specifics, though whether that’s because he wants to participate in policy-making, or because he has either no clue/intention of giving Tories a target to shoot at, is unclear.  With the Liberal policy convention underway, it’s an opportune time to think about how a future Liberal government might deliver on this promise.

One thing Trudeau pere knew very well is that education is a provincial responsibility.  Period.  If you can find it, read PET’s 1957 essay, “Grants to Quebec Universities”, in Federalism and the French Canadians, which begins with him saying: “I agree with Duplessis on this”, and mostly consists of him savaging the rationales centralists offer for Ottawa’s intrusion into provincial jurisdictions.  In office, Trudeau killed the direct federal university funding scheme that St. Laurent created, and replaced it with block grants to provinces (then known as “Established Programs Financing”, now known as the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer).

Let’s start by assuming that Justin is closer to his father’s views on this than are most Liberals: what tools would he then have for spending on education and training?  It’s a shorter list than you’d think.  As far as K-12 education goes, there’s practically nothing.  At best, you could boost provincial budgets by offering an infrastructure program to build/repair schools, thus taking those expenditures out of provincial hands.  That’s politically tricky – Alberta, BC, and Ontario, with their growing suburban youth populations, would scoff at most of this – but it is do-able.

At the university level, the most obvious way to get money into universities and colleges would be to pump more money into the CST, and fully designate it as being for PSE.  The problem, of course, is that there there would be absolutely no accountability over this – provinces could spend the lot on a weekend bender with Charlie Sheen if they wanted to – but it would be simple, quick, and most provinces would probably feel the need to make a show of spending some extra money on PSE as a result.  The other two traditional areas of federal expenditure – research and student assistance – would be easier realms in which to create identifiable boutique programs.  Hopefully, Trudeau would refrain from this, though.  An over-large institutional focus on research doesn’t obviously help “education” (there might be a separate case for research in and of itself, but we shouldn’t pretend they are one and the same, and one certainly shouldn’t be funded by initiatives for the other), and as I noted yesterday, there’s already too much boutiquery in student aid.

Skills training may offer some of the most interesting terrain for policy initiatives.  Axing the Canada Jobs Grant, and putting the money back into programs provinces actually seem to think work, would be a crowd pleaser, as would an infrastructure program for colleges to deliver better skills training.  Most ambitious of all would be to work with provinces on a top-to-bottom overhaul of apprenticeships, starting by decoupling federal support to apprentices from the EI system – a feature that perpetuates our deeply unfit-for-purpose system of block release training.

In short: there are some good options, but apart from skills training they aren’t very headline-worthy, and won’t appeal to many Liberals.

April 16

Attainment Rates 101

Apparently, the new Liberal Leader has decided that one of his touchstone policies will be to raise post-secondary attainment rates in Canada from 50% to 70%.  No details yet on how he plans to achieve this, but that’s not my focus today.  Rather, I’d like to look at the underlying math of how you move an attainment rate.

An attainment rate is the percentage of a given population that has completed a certain level of education.  Although Trudeau has never specified what age-range he’s talking about, the 50% figure (second-best in the world, as it happens) seems to come from OECD’s Education at a Glance (EAG), and one can therefore infer that it covers the 25-64 age range.

Evaluating the feasibility of moving the needle on attainment depends on the time-frame in which one expects to complete the task.  Trudeau hasn’t specified this either, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that the intended period is ten years.

To understand how this might work, let’s break-down attainment rates by age, as we do, below, in figure 1.

Figure 1 – Attainment Rates by Age Cohort, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing you can see right away is that attainment rates will naturally increase as younger, better educated 25 year-olds replace older, less well-educated 64 year-olds.  (though not dramatically so, because Canada’s 55-64 year-olds are fairly well-educated).  Thus, the status quo alone would raise the attainment rate to 53.5%.

Now, the burden of raising attainment rates tends to fall on the youth who are just leaving high school, because it’s a lot easier to get them into post-secondary education than it is people already in the labour force.  But doing this one youth cohort at a time is a tough slog – even more so in Canada, where that youth cohort is actually less numerous than the cohorts ahead of it.

A thought experiment can help illustrate how tough this is: imagine for a moment that every single kid who attends secondary school over the next decade not only graduates from high school, but also graduates from college or university – this would achieve a 100% attainment rate.  But here’s the kicker: even if this miracle occurred, it would only raise attainment rates for the population as a whole to 64%.

Figure 2 – A Miracle Attainment Scenario for 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Assuming that going all Soylent Green on the less-educated elderly is out of the question, then the only other way to bump attainment rates to this high a figure, within a decade, would be to go on the mother-of-all-adult education campaigns.  Except that Canada has a pretty terrible record with adult education, so it’s not clear how we’d do that.

Verdict?  A 70% attainment rate might be achievable in twenty years, but not ten.  And so even if he’s blessed with his father’s political longevity, it’s simply not something Justin Trudeau could ever hope to achieve during his time in office.

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