HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Mobility

May 11

Trade-offs in Apprenticeships

I haven’t worked on apprenticeship projects much in the last few years, but one of my current gigs has got me thinking about the area again.  And one thing that I apparently missed completely was a new (well, new to me anyway) effort to harmonize apprenticeship program sequencing nationally (details here).

Wait a minute, you say – weren’t apprenticeships always harmonized?  Isn’t that what Red Seal is all about?

Well, sort of.  Red Seal was about harmonizing outcomes.  Basically, Red Seal was an exam that journeypersons could take after completing their (provincially-governed) training which would certify them as being qualified to ply their trade right across the country.  It was optional – if you had no intention of leaving your home province there wasn’t a whole lot of point in taking the exam because completion of the program was itself sufficient to allow one to practice there.  Red Seal was therefore basically a mobility tool for people who had completed apprenticeships.

Now, that was fine when most apprentices started and completed their training in one province.  But during the resource boom, there was an explosion of apprentices who began training in one province and then moved and wanted to complete training in another.  This created problems because although Red Seal had long since harmonized apprenticeship training outcomes, each province got to those outcomes in quite different ways.  Within the same trade, the number of required hours/weeks of training varied from one province to another, and the sequencing was different.  Something that an electrician learned at level 1 in Alberta wasn’t taught until level 3 in Ontario, something that made things complicated if, for instance, an apprentice level 2 electrician got laid off in Windsor and wanted to try his/her luck in Alberta.

As I say, I’ve been out of this file awhile but what seems to have happened is that the provincial directors of apprenticeship seem to have got together and actually co-ordinated things like training sequencing, number of weeks of in-class training, etc, and this is what they refer to as “harmonization”.  According to that federal website, this harmonization initiative is about halfway done – i.e about half the Red Seal trades were harmonized in 2016 and 2017 and the rest will be rolled out in stages over the next couple of years.

So, a triumph for the Canadian apprenticeship system?  Well, not so fast.

Not all trades programs are apprenticeship programs, but the curriculum still has to line up because everyone wants graduates of pre-employment trades programs to be able to become apprentices in that area.  So what that means is that national harmonization of apprenticeship programs in effect means nationalization of the entire trades curriculum.  And what that means is the effectiveness of all those local industry committees that every community college program has suddenly just got a lot less effective, because significant curriculum changes now have to be negotiated among ten provincial directors of apprenticeships.

Traditionally, those committees have been a point of pride in Canada because they have given trades programs the ability to respond quickly to business needs.  Now, their effectiveness has been traded away in the name not of journeyperson mobility but of apprentice mobility, which was a thing in the resource boom but maybe not so much in the bust.  Is that a smart trade-off?  I suspect the answer varies quite a bit by trade, and yet solution this is being applied uniformly across Red Seal Trades.

We are told “industry” asked for this change, but I really wonder who was part of the consultation.  I can certainly believe that big industry with training efforts in many different provinces asked for it.  I can believe that extractive industries asked for it.  I have a harder time believing that smaller and medium enterprises asked for it because it substantially lowers their ability to affect curriculum and to some degree lowers the values of apprentices to them.

Silver linings have clouds, basically.  And centralized curricula have trade-offs.

March 03

Mega-Trends in International Higher Education – A Summary

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at some of the big changes going on in higher education globally.  To wit:

  • Higher education student numbers are continuing to rise around the world. This massification in many countries is being accompanied by stratification.  Getting a “distinctive” degree at a prestige university remains hard; going abroad remains a good way of getting it.  So increases in international student numbers are likely to continue, ceteris paribus.
  • Institutions in developing countries are unlikely to increase their global prestige level any time soon. Climbing the ladder costs money most developing-world governments don’t have, and in any case, the definition of prestige is changing in ways that make it difficult for universities in developing countries to follow.
  • Demographic forces have been a significant part of the rise in global student numbers; however, for the next decade or so, these trends will not be quite so favourable (though by 2030 they should be trending positive again).
  • Similarly, the end of the commodity super-cycle means a lot of countries that were getting rich off the rise of countries like China are no longer getting richer, in developed-country currency terms, anyway (and even India is not doing well by this measure). This means at least some potential international students are looking for cheaper alternatives.

So what does all this mean?  How do we sum up these trends?

First of all, we need to stop all this nonsense talk about international higher education being a “bubble”.  It’s not.  The fundamentals of demand – rising numbers of students wanting a prestige degree – are strong, as are developed universities’ market position as a purveyors of prestige degrees.

There are two things which could undermine this.  Demographic headwinds might mean that universities would need to do more to increase the percentage of students studying abroad in order to keep up the trends (rather than simply relying on the overall trends in increased participation).  Clearly, recent economic setbacks and currency slides in a number of countries make it more difficult to do this, at least if you’re an institution in one of the countries where the currency remains strong.  If, like Canada, you’re not, then this is a chance to steal a march on countries who either have strong currencies (the US) or who through some sort of policy lobotomy have decided they don’t want international students (the UK).  In any case, international student numbers have held up for the last few years in the face of these headwinds: the real test is what happens if economic growth starts to stall in China.

The other potential game-changer is one I alluded to a couple of times last year (see here and here); which is whether or not sending-country governments start to deliberately shut off the taps, deny students exit visas, and begin discriminating against graduates of foreign universities in the labour market.  A year ago, that might have sounded crazy; today, such moves are by no means unthinkable in Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey.  Others may follow.

In short, there is risk today in the world of international student mobility.  But it is political rather than economic.  All we can do is keep plugging away and hope that the global situation does not get worse.

In the meantime, the OTTSYD be taking a break for reading week, and will return to our regular schedule on March 13.

February 17

Four Mega-trends in International Higher Education – Economics

If there’s one word everyone can agree upon when talking about international education, it’s “expensive”. Moving across borders to go to school isn’t cheap and so it’s no surprise that international education really got big certain after large developing countries (mainly but not exclusively China and India) started getting rich in the early 2000s.

How rich did these countries get? Well, for a while, they got very rich indeed. Figure 1 shows per capita income for twelve significant student exporting countries, in current US dollars, from 1999 to 2011, with the year 1999 as a base. Why current dollars instead of PPP? Normally, PPP is the right measure, but this is different because the goods we’re looking at are themselves priced in foreign currencies. Not necessarily USD, true – but we could run the same experiment with euros and we’d see something largely similar, at least from about 2004 onwards. So as a result figure 1 is capturing both changes in base GDP and change in exchange rates.

Figure 1: Per Capita GDP, Selected Student Exporting Countries, 1999-2011 (1999=100), in current USD

Figure 1: Per Capita GDP, Selected Student Exporting Countries, 1999-2011 (1999=100), in current USD

And what we see in figure 1 is that every country saw per capita GDP rise in USD, at least to some degree. The growth was least in Mexico (70% over 12 years) and Egypt (108%). But in the so-called “BRIC” countries world’s two largest countries, the growth was substantially bigger – 251% in Brazil, 450% in India, 626% in China, and a whopping 1030% in Russia (and yes, that’s from an artificially low-base on Russia in 1999, ravaged by the painful transition to a market economy and the 1998 wave of bank failures, but if you want to know why Putin is popular in Russia, look no further). Without this massive increase in purchasing power, the recent flood of international students would not have been possible.

But….but but but. That graph ends in 2011, which was the last good year as far as most developing countries are concerned. After that, the gradual end to the commodity super-cycle changed the terms of trade substantially against most of these countries, and in some countries local disasters as well (e.g. shake-outs of financial excess after the good years, sanctions, etc) caused GDP growth to stall and exchange rates to fall. The result? Check out figure 2. Of the 10 countries in our sample, only three are unambiguously better off in USD terms now than they were in 2011: Egypt, Vietnam, and (praise Jesus) China. Everybody else is worse off or (in Nigeria’s case) will be once the 2016 data come in.

Figure 2: Per Capita GDP, Selected Student Exporting Countries, 2011-2015 (2011=100), in current USD

Figure 2: Per Capita GDP, Selected Student Exporting Countries, 2011-2015 (2011=100), in current USD

Now, it’s important not to over-interpret this chart. We know that many of these countries have been able to maintain. Yes, reduced affordability makes it harder for student to study abroad – but we also know that global mobility has continued to increase even as many countries have it the rough economically (caveat: a lot of that is because of continued economic resilience in China which has yet to hit the rough). Part of the reason is that if a student wants to study abroad and can’t make it to the US, he or she won’t necessarily give up on the idea of going to a foreign university or college: they might just try to find a cheaper alternative. That benefits places which have been pummelled by the USD in the last few years – places like Canada, Australia and even Russia.

In short: economics matters in international higher education, and economic headwinds in much of the world are making studying abroad a more challenging prospect than they did five years ago. But big swings in exchange rates can open up opportunities for new providers.

September 13

Measuring the Effects of Study Abroad

In the higher education advocacy business, an unhappily large proportion of the research used is of the correlation = causation type.  For instance, many claim that higher education has lots of social benefits like lower crime rates and higher rates of community volunteering on the grounds that outcomes of graduates are better than outcomes of non-graduates in these areas.  But this is shaky.  There are very few studies which look at this carefully enough to eliminate selection bias – that is, that the people who go to higher education were less disposed to crime/more disposed to volunteering to begin with.  The independent “treatment” effect of higher education is much more difficult to discern.

This applies in spades to studying the question of the effects of study abroad.  For instance, one widely quoted study  of the Erasmus program showed that five years after graduation, unemployment rates for graduates who had been in a study-abroad program were 23% lower than for those who did not.  But this is suspect.  First of all “23% lower” actually isn’t all that much for a population where unemployment is about 5% (it means one group has unemployment of 4% and the other 5%, more or less).  Second of all, there is a selection bias here.  The study-abroad and non-study abroad populations are not perfectly identical populations who differ only in that they have been given different “treatments”: they are different populations, one of which has enough drive and courage to pick up sticks to move to another country and (often) study in another language.  It’s quite possible they would have had better employment outcomes anyways.  You can try to limit bias by selecting a control group that is similar to the study abroad population by selecting a group that mimics them in terms of field of study, GPA, etc, but it’s not perfect and very few studies do so anyway (a very honourable mention here to the GLOSSARI project from Georgia headed by Don Rubin)

(Before we go any further: no, I don’t think employability skills are the only reason to encourage study abroad.  I do however think that if universities and colleges are going to frame their claim for more study abroad in economic terms – either by suggesting students will be more employable or making more general claims of increasing economic competitiveness – then it is incumbent on them to actually demonstrate some impact.  Claiming money on an economic imperative and them turning around and saying “on that doesn’t matter because well-rounded citizen” doesn’t really wash.

There are other ways of trying to prove this point about employability, of course.  One is to ask employers if they think study abroad matters.  They’ll usually say yes, but it’s a leap of faith to go from that to saying that study abroad actually is much a help in actually landing a job.  Some studies have asked students themselves if they think their study abroad experience was helpful in getting a job.  The answer is usually yes, but it’s hard to interpret what that means, exactly.

Since it’s difficult to work out directly how well internationalization is helping students get jobs, some people try to look at whether or not students get the skills that employers want (self-discipline, creativity, working in teams, etc).  The problem with this approach of course, is that the only real way to do this is through self-assessment which not everybody accepts as a way to go (but in the absence of actual testing of specific skills, there aren’t a whole lot of other options).  Alternatively, if you use a pre-post evaluation mechanism, you can at least check on the difference in self-assessment of skills over time, which might then be attributed to time spent in study abroad.  If that’s still not enough to convince you (if, for instance, you suspect that all students self-assessments would go up over the space of a few months, because all students are to some degree improving skills all the time), try a pre-post method with a control group, too: if both groups’ self-assessments go up, you can still measure the difference in the rate at which the self-reported skills increase across the two groups.  If they go up more for study-abroad students than for stay-at-homes, then the difference in the rates of growth can, cautiously, be attributed to the study abroad period.

Basically: measuring impacts takes time, and is complicated.  And despite lots of people in Canada avowing how important outbound mobility is, we never seem to take them time, care and expense to do the measurement.  Easier, I suppose, to rely on correlations and hope no one notices.

It’s a shame really because I think there are some interesting and specifically Canadian stories to tell about study abroad.  More on that tomorrow.

September 12

How Many Canadian Students Study Abroad? How Many Should?

If you look at the current issue of Policy Options, there is a startling claim made in the sub-headline of an article by Universities Australia CEO Belinda Robinson; namely, that “five times as many Australian undergraduates are studying abroad as their Canadian counterparts”.  It’s not a claim Robinson herself makes – it seems likely that it’s been added by the editorial staff at Policy Options.  The problem is it’s not correct.

The Canadian numbers come from a periodic survey Universities Canada does of its members on internationalization (the last example of this is here).  The last time they did the survey they found that 2.6% of students did a “for-credit” international experience, and another 0.5% did a non-credit course: total, 3.1%.  That’s if you believe universities can actually keep track of this stuff; my guess is there’s a substantial number who can’t or don’t capture this data well – particularly in those cases where students are arranging foreign experiences on their own, so this number is likely at least a bit of an undercount.

Now, in the aforementioned article Robinson noted that over 16% of Australian students had an overseas experience of some kind.  Someone, clearly, took that 16%, divided it by the Canadian 3% and voila!  Over 5 times more!  Except this is apples and oranges: the Canadian figure refers to students who go abroad in any given year while the Australian figure is the percentage who go abroad at some point in their career.   We don’t actually know what percentage of Canadian undergraduates go abroad over the course of their degree.  Back in the days when we HESA Towers used to run a national student panel, we found that 8% of current students (in the panel, at any rate, which was skewed to upper-year students and hence should come closer to the Australian picture) had had some kind of exchange experience.

(This is one of those things we could answer pretty easily if Statscan put a question about it in the NGS, or if CUSC put it in their tri-annual surveys of graduating students.  Hint hint.)

Wonky figures aside, Australia does seem to have been doing something right over the past few years, having quadrupled its out-bound student flow since 2000, and perhaps Canada should be emulating it.  But there is a genuine question here about what the “right” number of students going abroad.  What‘s should our target be?  I’ve seen serious commentators say we shouldn’t be looking at Australia, but rather Germany, where something like 30% of students go abroad at some point (actually, it’s 30% of “upper-year” students have gone abroad, based on a survey of students – on which measure Canada is, as noted earlier, about 8%).

This strikes me as a bit pie-in-the-sky.  For a German student, the marginal cost of studying elsewhere in the EU is fairly low; over two-thirds of undergraduates in Germany already live alone (source – the excellent Eurostudent website), and they have a host of potentially awesome international destinations within a couple of hundred dollars transportation fare by budget airline.  In Canada, a greater percentage of students live with their parents, so the average marginal cost is going to be higher, not to mention the fact that most of the international destinations we care about (we’re inconsistent about whether or not to call the US an “international experience”, mostly we mean Europe and Asia) are a couple of thousand dollars away, and unless you live in Toronto or Vancouver, the costs of living abroad on one’s own are likely to be somewhat higher than it is back here.   So it’s overall a much more expensive proposition for Canadians than Germans.

And what are the benefits of study abroad?  Anything that might justify the extra expense?  Well, I’ll get into this in some length over the next couple of days, but ask yourself: when’s the last time you heard about a recent graduate getting or losing a job because of having/not having an international experience?  Exactly.  Whatever you might be able to get a corporate exec to say re: the need for global competencies blah blah blah, Canadian employers, be they in the private or public sector, simply don’t seem to care that much about international experiences (lest you think I am being harsh on Canada and its complacency in international affairs, I urge everyone to read Andrea Mandell-Campbell’s book Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson.  Tl:dr: too often Canadians believe the hokey “The World Needs More Canada” line when in fact the reverse is usually true).

I think it will be hard to make the financial case for raising our rate of outbound mobility, simply because neither students nor governments will put money into this kind of project if there aren’t clear signals from the labour market that the return will balance the expense.  Instead, study abroad will remain what it too often is now: a holiday somewhere nice.  For all the talk of study abroad as an inter-cultural experience, it is striking how many students take their study abroad in the US, the UK, Australia or France: in cultures not dissimilar from their own.

So how can we measure and sell the benefits of study abroad?  Tune in tomorrow.

August 03

A tipping point for internationalization?

Over the last few years, my position about internationalization has been pretty consistent: the international student market is going to grow and grow.  Talk about a China bubble – one of the education press’s favourite “what-if?” doom and gloom scenarios – is almost invariably overstated.  Yes, political instability in a place might China might occur, but Chinese parents think of having students overseas as an insurance policy, a way to get out if need be – so frankly if anything political instability there is likely to increase study abroad, not decrease it.  Fears about an economic contraction affecting internationalization?  We just had a Great Recession and international student numbers climbed right around the world.

The only thing that I think really stands in the way of continued growth in international student numbers is a major disruption in the international economic/political order, something on the scale of a major war, say.  And until now I’ve been pretty confident that this isn’t in the offing.  But after the summer of 2016, I’m not so sure anymore: turns out there are ways to effectively poison the prevailing economic/political order short of war.

To me, there are six big things going on right now which individually might not matter much but taken together signal real change: Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish coup, Trumpism, the French election and the creeping cult of Xi Jinping.  None of these phenomenon do much to change outbound student-mobility at a global level in the short term.  Brexit might reduce foreign demand for UK education, but those people have options elsewhere; the Turkish coup, if anything, gives a boost to internationalization because there are going to be a *lot* of secular-minded students looking for an exit.  But in the medium term, it’s possible these changes herald a very different kind of world than the one we have grown used to.

Internationalization in higher education depends in large part on the notion that mobility – and not just study mobility but life mobility – is desirable.  If you’re a kid from an aspiring middle-class family in Buenos Aires or Beirut or Beijing, you want the foreign degree partly because the institution you might attend is better/more prestigious than the education might get at home, and partly because you think your degree will make you more valuable to a wider set of employers.  But if laws emerge which constrain businesses from hiring across national borders, that poses a serious challenge to the logic behind internationalization.

Trumpism and Brexit are both expressions of ugly nativism and herald exactly such a challenge.  Though they may not play out completely (Brexit may not happen, Trump likely won’t win the general election) they certainly suggest that the twin anglo-saxon motors of globalization are much less keen on immigration than they were.  The French election, which Marine LePen is now given a reasonable chance of winning, could see this momentum carried through to another major G-7 country.  The Schengen agreement is still wobbly thanks to the refugee crisis and Europe’s mostly short-sighted reaction to it and mobility within Europe may will be curtailed at some point.  In the developed world, where we used to see immigration in terms of doors and bridges between nations, increasingly we see only walls.  This is not good.

And that’s just what’s going on in developed countries.  The aftermath of the Turkish coup attempt has freed President Erdogan’s most authoritarian tendencies, resulting in a wholesale attack on universities and academics.  In China, universities are being purged of “western influences.”  In themselves, neither of these are going to reduce student flows; but in both cases you see major countries adopting more nationalist positions, and being more restrictive of press freedoms and freedoms of speech.  These spaces are becoming less open to the world, not more.  These are not conditions in which it seems likely that employers  will enthusiastically welcome students who have gone abroad for their education.

Put all that together, we could be going back to a pre-1989 world where the nation-state is much more powerful and paternalist and where individual mobility – at least, beyond simple tourism – is much more restricted than it is today.  Some people, I am sure, would welcome such a world.  Personally, I think it would be a disaster and a huge step backwards for progress and freedom.  Where universities are concerned it would be a disaster because it would erode the foundations of internationalization and student mobility.

I’m not saying this will all happen; a slow-down in the move towards globalization still seems more likely than an out-right reversal of it.  But this summer’s events make me much less confident about this than I have been at any time in the last thirty years.  Institutions with major stakes in internationalization would be wise to do some contingency planning.

April 28

Mobility Responsibilities

Saying that we should remove barriers to student mobility sounds like a motherhood issue.  But scratch a little deeper, and you’ll see that, in fact, Canadians are pretty equivocal on the concept.

For starters, while everyone loves inbound mobility (come here!  It’s a great place!), there’s a pretty deep streak of protectionism in Canadian provincial governments on the issue of outbound mobility.  The sentiment of “let’s keep our kids at home” runs deep in many parts of the country.  It wasn’t until the advent of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation that all student aid programs became portable in most provinces (though Quebec maintains a policy of not funding students to go out of the province, unless the program is not offered in the province, “and it is in the interest of the Quebec collectivity”.  Yes, really).

But whose responsibility is mobility in the first place?  In Europe, with respect to tuition and student aid, it’s the receiving country who bears the cost – no matter where they’re from, students pay whatever the locals do, and have access to whatever student aid program the locals provide.  In Canada, our default assumption is that host provinces are supposed charge equal tuition to all Canadians regardless of their place of origin, but the responsibility for mobility on student aid lies with the sending province.  One can move from Nova Scotia to Manitoba and pay Manitoba rates of tuition, but one still has to rely on Nova Scotia Student Aid.

But there are exceptions.  The most clear-cut is Quebec’s insistence on charging tuition fees to out-of-province students.  Less clear-cut (but still clearly discriminatory), are the cases of Nova Scotia and Ontario.  The former provides tuition rebates to Nova Scotia students, but not to other Canadians.  Ontario has a variety of subsidies that are only available to Ontario students attending Ontario institutions (the tuition tax rebate is one, as are the many provincially-mandated, institutionally-managed access funds – funded through a “tax” on tuition paid by Ontarians and non-Ontarians alike).  These are all anti-mobility measures: they effectively create a two-tier tuition policy within a province, and (in Ontario’s case at least) provide extra subsidies to students who chose not to leave.

Interestingly, while Quebec’s two-tier tuition system is usually portrayed as a piece of xenophobia and rank insolence to other Canadians who, through equalization, are partially picking up the tab for Quebec’s lower tuition, Nova Scotia and Ontario are given a total pass, despite their policies having almost identical effects.

What that tells us is that Canadians don’t mind mobility barriers as long as they are dressed-up as “affordability enhancements”. Ultimately, such measures are self-defeating; as with trade barriers, eventually everyone is left worse off.  But there are enough small-minded politicians out there to ensure that these kinds of tactics always have a potential audience.  As budgets get tighter over the next couple of years, there’s a good chance we’ll see more examples of discriminatory tuition fees, loans, and grants being made non-portable across provincial borders.  I hope that’s not the case, but history doesn’t give me huge grounds for optimism.

January 23

International Education Strategies – How Others Do It

By now, a lot of you will have read – either on our Blog or at the Globe and Mail – my rant about the new International Education Strategy, released last week by the Government  of Canada.  A number of people said they agreed with me, but wanted to know what I would have recommended in its place.  I won’t do that (that’s the stuff I charge for, folks); instead, I want to contrast emerging international education strategies elsewhere, with our own.

Take Norway, which has just launched a new strategy designed to get more of their students to study abroad.  It has recognized that the main barrier to achieving this is financial, and has come up with better financial packages to help students go abroad.  In addition, because they have a desire to forge strategic relationships in particular parts of the globe, they are making deals to improve mobility to specific places: North America for graduate studies, Asia (mainly China) for undergraduate study.

The easy hit here is to note that the Norwegian outward-looking strategy is in stark contrast to the self-centred, mercantilist stuff that DFAIT released last week (“WE need skills!  WE need foreign students! It’s all about US!”).  The more important point, though, is that the Norwegians actually understand what “strategy” means.  They diagnosed a problem (Norwegian students not worldly enough), identified a barrier to a solution (need more money to make students more mobile), and threw appropriate resources at it.

Now compare this to our strategy.  Instead of diagnosing a problem, we picked a target out of the air – double the number of international students (Why double? Why not triple?  No clue – that’s how “out of the air” the number is).  We did not identify any barriers to the solution, other than the speed at which we can process visas.  No thought about institutional capacity factors, or reasons why foreigners might not want to come to Canada.  As for appropriate resources – $5 million for marketing, spread thinly over more than half the planet.  That’s not concentrating resources on a problem, that’s just tossing money around.  Norway 1, Canada 0.

Or take Sweden, where a number of CEOs have asked the government to re-think its policy of charging non-EU students full tuition, because it is reducing the number of young, Swedish-trained foreign graduates available to the Swedish tech industry.  Again, a goal (not enough foreign grads), a barrier (fees), and a solution (lower fees).  The Canadian strategy, on the other hand, assumes that huge cash payoffs from international student fees AND immense benefits from higher-quality immigration are both possible, and simply waves away any possible tension or trade-off between the two goals.  Sweden 1, Canada 0.

No point moaning now, I suppose.  We’re stuck with this abortion of a strategy at least until the next election.  The important thing now is to diagnose how we produced a document this bad, and how to prevent it happening again.  More on that tomorrow.

November 14

Canada’s Bologna Moment

If you can cast your mind back all of three weeks, before the Ford video(s) and Mike Duffy going kamikaze on the Prime Minister, there was some big news out of Ottawa about how a Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) had finally been reached. The finer details of the deal are still unavailable, but one thing that has been promised all along is that this deal will permit the free movement of labour between Canada and Europe.  And that’s a reason for the higher education sector to pay attention.

Freedom of movement is pretty great, when it works.  But the problem with inter-jurisdictional freedom of movement is that it’s easier to achieve in theory than in practice.  Language barriers crop up, for one thing (even within Canada, lots of anglos who would like to move to Montreal don’t because their language skills aren’t good enough for the local labour market).  There’s idiotic regulatory barriers regarding credentials, for another.  But even where a trade agreement gets rid of credential-based regulatory barriers, there’s still the problem of whether employers actually recognize what a credential means, and can hire and pay people accordingly.

This was a problem in Europe back in the 1990s before there was a standard system of degrees, as there were a riot of different credentials on offer across the continent.  A German Diplom was a five-year technical credential, a French Diplome was a 2-year intermediate academic credential on the way to an undergraduate degree, an Armenian Diplom was a secondary school credential – what employer could keep all that straight?  Far easier just to hire a local, whose credential you understand.  So, even though the principle of free movement of labour existed in the European Union, the problem of general credential recognition meant that it was limited in practice.

This problem was a big reason why Europe’s governments got behind the Bologna Process.  Only by standardizing the structure of their higher education systems could they turn de jure mobility rights into a de facto mobility reality.  And so the question for Canada now, is: will this free-labour movement actually mean anything if our higher education systems aren’t aligned with Europe’s?  Canada can’t actually become part of the Bologna Process – that’s reserved for countries which are part of the Council of Europe – but there’s nothing saying we can’t harmonize our system with Bologna Processes.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the benefits of a big shift like Bologna harmonization are in fact worth the hassle.  But there’s also no doubt that the signing of CETA means that the time to ask ourselves the big questions about Bologna, and its benefits, is now.

April 12

In Praise of Downward Mobility

One much-used trope, among those wanting to bash higher education, attacks the idea of “downward mobility”.  Typically, a journalist finds a kid from a nice middle-class family, having a hard time making-it in the labour market, and uses this as a platform for a string of Wente-isms:  “Higher education is supposed to be about upward mobility – but now graduates are downwardly mobile!  Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Etc. etc.

But upward mobility is greatly overrated.  Downward mobility is where our focus should be.  And here’s why:

Part of the problem with the notion of upward mobility is that, with respect to education, the term gets used in two distinct ways.  The first is a, “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” interpretation, where everyone is upwardly mobile in the sense that everyone’s purchasing power is rising.  Universities and colleges, through their enriching of human capital, and their contributions to the national innovations system, are seen to be key actors in this process – though, obviously, there are many other things which also go into economic growth.  Right now, this kind of upward mobility is in short supply.

But even where there is little or no economic growth, upward mobility in a second sense – that of people changing their position within the overall social hierarchy – can still exist.  But this type of mobility is a zero-sum game.  Upward mobility can only exist to the extent that downward mobility does.

The book I discussed yesterday, for example (Paying for the Party), is full of stories about downwardly mobile middle-class kids (albeit mostly ones who don’t work very hard at their studies).  That’s sad, but what’s truly appalling is the complete lack of downward mobility among the upper-class students.  No matter how useless they are academically, mom and dad are always there to help them avoid the consequences of their inaction.

A fair society, one where social position is actually reflective of effort and ability, requires more downward mobility, not less.  We need to be finding ways to take inherited privilege away, not re-inforce it.  It’s why the rich need to pay more in tuition (and why the poor need grants to offset it).  It’s why legacy admissions and merit scholarships that don’t take social origins into account need to be fought.  It’s why all those unpaid internships in so-called “desirable” fields (mainly media and publishing) are not just illegal but are also immoral, because they tilt the playing field to the trustafarians who can afford them.

In a low-growth economy, allowing some to rise in social position means others must fall.  We in higher education have a vital role to play in this, and we shouldn’t be squeamish about it.

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