Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Nova Scotia

May 29

Halifax, We Have a Problem


Passing through Halifax airport on Thursday, I realised that I have been remiss in not yet having covered the party platforms for tomorrow’s provincial election.   So, I set about reading the party platforms and then immediately wished I hadn’t because they’re basically a tidy encapsulation of most of what’s wrong with higher education policy in Canada.

Let’s start with the ruling Liberals.  Now, they haven’t done badly by PSE in government, especially in their last budget, which saw the sector get a 4% boost in real terms.  The only thing you can fault them for – and it’s a reasonably big fault – is that when they cut the $50 million Graduate Tax Rebate, they chose not to reinvest any of it either in students or in post-secondary more generally.

The Liberal platform promises no new money for institutions.  It does however, have an incredible grab-bag of micro-promises, all of which cost in the $1-4 million range, which is pretty small even for Nova Scotia (apparently they have learned the lesson that media coverage is proportional to the number of announcements, not the dollar value of those announcements).  They want to add an “Innovation Sandbox” to the seven that already exist, create a new provincial research agency, increase subsidies to hire master’s and doctoral graduates (as well as aboriginal, minority and disabled Nova Scotians) top up MITACS funding, eliminate tuition for apprentices when they leave work to complete technical training, expand opportunities for women and minorities in apprenticeships, increasing provincial student loans to $200/week and expanding loan forgiveness eligibility by changing the eligibility criteria from four years to graduation to five years.  Total annual cost of all that, when fully phased-in: about $13.5 million, with about three-quarters of that going to students one way or another.

Running neck and neck with the Liberals are the Progressive Conservatives, who have a much more limited set of pledges around post-secondary education.  Just three, in fact.  First, “force universities to focus on innovation and job creation” (are they not doing this already? What more are they supposed to do?); Second, roll tuition back to the Canadian average (about $900 per student); and third, reinstate the Graduate Tax Rebate that the Liberals axed.  The costing on these is tragic/hilarious.  Apparently neither of the first two promises will cost a cent – universities will have to eat the $30 million or so cost of the tuition pledge and whatever the hell it costs to meet this fantasy pledge about innovation and job creation.  And the graduate tax rebate?  $25 million – or only about half as generous as the program it’s meant to replace.  So, then, that’s a $55 million in net benefit to students, a real cut of $30 million plus to institutions.

Finally, we have the NDP platform.  The Dexter government pretty much made an unmitigated hash of the post-secondary file: cuts to institutional budgets, commissioning a visionary report on the future of the University System in the province and then more or less ignoring the results, etc.  But they have a fresh new set of proposals they’d like you to believe in.  It’s a three-parter: first, requiring PSE institutions to have policies on sexual violence; second, reduce tuition fees by 10% over four years and third, eliminate tuition at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) altogether, a policy which faithful readers know I think makes a lot of sense).  Unlike the Tories, they seem to have more or less costed this correctly.   $38 million a year at full phase-in for the cut to university fees is a bit low because it seems to be based on 2014-15 fee income, but if you assume international students are exempted it will work just fine.  $36 million to get rid of fees at NSCC is about dead on, too.  The half-million for institutions to adopt policies about sexual assault is a bit of a mystery, but we’ll let that one go.  Total: $74.5 million, of which $74 million goes to students.

For those keeping count, that makes for somewhere in the neighbourhood of $140 million in total promises to students, and as near as $0 as makes no odds to universities and colleges (or negative $30 million, depending on how you count the Tory pledge).  Now, it’s not that any of these parties are actually going to freeze funding for four years.  More likely, you’ll see post-secondary spending rise more or less in line with nominal GDP growth, or a bit slower.  But that, as we all know, does not cover increases in running costs, which – since it’s a labour-intensive operation, naturally run consistently above inflation.

So whatever way this goes, we’re talking cuts at institutions to (in part) make PSE cheaper for students.

You can see how this will play out.  Universities, faced with cuts, will ask to raise fees. Politicians will grandstand and say: “Look at all the cuts you’re making.  Why should students pay more and receive less?  ”.  Institutional heads will then have to decide whether to tear their hair out in frustration or just go and recruit a boatload more international students to make up the difference.  No prizes for seeing how this will go.

This is not just a Nova Scotia phenomenon, of course.  More or less every provincial government has been doing this “feed-the-students, starve-the-institutions” for the last six years.    There’s no earthly rationale for this approach other than vote-buying.  It’s short-sighted, and needs to stop.

As for which party has the best policies?  Well, scratch the Tories.  I like the vision in the free community college pledge in the NDP platform, but a) distrust the execution because of the Dexter government’s record and b) I think at some point, we have to say no to vote-buying via giveaways to students.  So go with the Liberals.  Yeah, their platform is small, incremental and uninspiring.  But it’s the only one restrained enough to think there might be some money left over for investments in quality higher education.

April 16

De-Regulating Tuition in Nova Scotia

There seems to be a lot of interest in this Nova Scotia budget announcement on tuition-fee de-regulation, mostly from the everything-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket crowd.  In the interests of trying to keep people’s eyes on the ball, I thought I would try to put this move into some kind of context and examine what the likely outcomes will be.

(Necessary conflict of interest statement: In fall 2014, I did some writing work for the Nova Scotia Council of University Presidents, relating to priorities for the 2015 budget.  Make of that what you will.)

To start, let’s be clear about what the province has done.  It has allowed universities to do two things:

1)      For out-of-province, international and graduate students, the government has permanently de-regulated tuition fees

2)      For in-province undergraduates, tuition fees are being de-regulated for one year only, in order to allow institutions to make a one-time “adjustment” to program fees, after which tuition will return to having a 3% annual cap.

Now, some people assume that the term “de-regulation” means everyone is going to go hog-wild on fees.  But this isn’t necessarily true: remember that students will react to any price increase and this is a competitive market.  So the trick for universities is to work out the elasticity of the market – basically, how high can you jack up the price before people start looking for substitutes?

Universities essentially have two markets: “home” and “away”.   You can charge home students a heck of a lot before they will look for substitutes; they have to move away from home to find a substitute and that’s expensive – so the price differential can be quite high before a home market moves very much.   (note also that perceived quality matters – as many students leave Quebec for Ontario as the other way around, despite the substantial tuition gap).  But you can’t get away with that for “away” students in the same manner.  They are already paying substantially more than sticker price, because they are living away from home.  They already have cheaper alternatives.  How much more expensive can you make your product before turning them off?

Obviously, institutions are only going to raise fees in areas where they think demand is inelastic: that is, where a price hike isn’t going to substantially affect enrollment.  That means generally speaking you can expect fee rises to be concentrated in program where demand substantially exceeds supply.  Which means – among other things – that Arts programs aren’t likely to see big jumps.  But to add a bit of a wrinkle: the province has given universities the most flexibility over fees for group of students who are the most price-sensitive and the least flexibility over fees for those who are least price-sensitive.  Which makes for a very weird set of incentives: the pressure to go big will be highest for in-province students, because if they over-shoot on price to the high side they can always lower the price in subsequent years whereas if they price low, they won’t later be able to raise them significantly if they under-shoot.

It’s impossible in advance to say how institutions are going to take advantage of this flexibility.  Presumably strategies will vary depending on the amount of market power (i.e. excess of demand over supply) that each institution thinks it has in each of its programs:   But one lesson they should heed from the recent experience of almost-deregulation in Australia is this: make decisions quickly.  The longer uncertainty persists about what the prices will be, the longer opponents will have to raise support by suggesting the prices will be ridiculously high (King’s University Student Union was first off the mark on this one – see here – and they added some utterly ludicrous “statistics” on debt to bolster their case).  So while it goes against the grain to announce 2016 prices before Christmas, smart institutions will at the very least set out some principles that will counter the more hysterical propaganda as soon as possible.  Preferably before summer.

February 27

Clearer Thinking About Student Unions

Student associations have difficulty being effective, what with leadership turnovers over every year or so, and corporate memories that rarely extend beyond 36 months.  But every once in awhile, either because of some astute hires, or a lucky co-incidence of good leaders being elected at the same time, a student group gets on a hot streak.  StudentsNS, which represents the majority of associations in Nova Scotia, is in that zone right now.

The latest evidence: their recent review of governance at student unions.  Quite simply, it’s incredibly refreshing to have representative associations think aloud – thoughtfully, I might add – about their own deficiencies in terms of effectiveness and democratic procedures.  For that alone, StudentsNS deserves high praise and widespread emulation.

One of the key issues the paper deals with is elections.  Student associations have enough problems with legitimacy, stemming from low participation in student elections; but they often complicate this problem by making an absolute farce of how they conduct these elections.  At many associations, election rules are from the pre-internet era, and are fixated on trying to create level playing fields by means that, by any modern standard, violate freedom of speech (not to mention common sense).  Chief Electoral Officers are given enormous powers to set the terms of the game – and with that power comes the ability to potentially game the election if they so choose, something they are frequently accused of doing.  The StudentsNS paper gives some very good suggestions in that respect.

It also gives some very good general advice about the relationship between student unions and universities.  Rightly, it says this attitude needs to be collaborative rather than adversarial: both have an interest in seeing students complete their studies with the tools (academic and otherwise) they need to succeed in their subsequent careers, and both have a role to play in helping students deal with social and academic barriers to integrating into an institution.  They can do a lot more together to affect and improve campus culture than they can separately.  That’s not to say students shouldn’t hold institutions to account: particularly when it comes to keeping universities focussed on their teaching mission.  But the basic tenor of the relationship needs to be one of partnership.

Where the report goes slightly awry is in its recommendations on governance.  The paper conceptualizes student unions as dispensers of member services, and student union councils as needlessly focusing on organizational minutiae instead of more narrowly on governance.  Of the latter there is little doubt.  But the paper’s solution is effectively to get rid of most of the campus-wide elected positions (for instance, Presidents and Vice-Presidents) and just get students to elect a governing board, which can then elect a president who in turn manages a largely professionalized staff.

This strikes me as an unnecessarily bloodless definition of a student association.  Granted, there is real ambiguity about their true role: they aren’t “unions”, though they do provide political representation, and they aren’t “governments”, though they do manage services for members.  This paper tries to do away with this tension by redefining political representation as simply another service to members, one more thing to hand over to unelected staff whose work is overseen by a President and governed by a council.

I don’t buy this, and I kind of doubt students will either.  Representation is a matter of politics, not just “governance”.  Students want and need a forum to express how they feel about major issues with respect to how universities are governed, and how provinces pay for universities and colleges.   The main way they do that is by voting for specific representatives who run on specific platforms.  Under this plan, representation would be handled by someone who is hired (perhaps annually, perhaps longer) by a President to execute the (possibly quite muddled) compromise views of a governing council elected on widely differing platforms.  This is both more complex and (probably) less effective than what exists now, and I suspect would lead to a decline in student engagement with their student unions rather than an increase.

But that’s quibbling on my part.  The report is basically a good one, and student associations across the country should ponder its recommendations.  The more important question for the country as a whole is: how can we develop more student associations as thoughtful as StudentsNS?

January 15

The Listening Tour

There’s a little management technique gaining some traction called the “Listening Tour”.  In the US, over the past eighteen months, new Presidents at Carnegie Mellon and James Madison have used this to inaugurate their terms.  At Princeton, new President (and erstwhile Provost) Chris Eisgruber decided to embark on an entire “Year of Listening”, though why he needs a whole year when he’s been provost for the past nine is unclear.  Here at home, the pioneer of this is new Dalhousie President Richard Florizone, who began his term with “100 Days of Listening”.

It’s easy enough to see why listening tours are all the rage these days.  They combine a need in collegial organizations for Presidents to at least be seen to be inclusive in determining directions, with a certain management philosophy about the need for new leaders to size up their organizations’ strengths and weaknesses quickly in order to make big strategic decisions.  Michael Watkins’ book, The First 90 Daysis the most prominent of these; in Dal’s case they seem to have thrown in an extra 10 days to come up with something more Rooseveltian.

I haven’t paid a great deal of attention to the outcomes of the American listening tours, but the Dal one is interesting because Florizone has – unusually – gone and penned quite a lengthy document about his experience, which you can find here.

Now, listening tours at universities are all going to sound pretty similar: everyone wants to be more prestigious, be good at research and teaching (no choosing!), be more collegial, yadda yadda, all of which Florizone duly conveys.  On the basis of his listening, he makes some useful observations and commitments to improve Dal’s less-than-stellar reputation within the Halifax community, and its inclusiveness of the province’s African and Mik’Maq communities. (He is also – I think – a little too credulous about Dal’s research strength, but leave that aside for now.)

But Florizone also manages to slip some interesting data into his document – stuff he hasn’t so much heard as discovered via some intensive work with his institutional research shop.   Those are the most interesting bits of the document because they more directly reflect his thoughts: his observation that Dal has more programs per undergraduate student than any other U15 school, that its retention rates aren’t very good, that the pension plan’s still a bit of a mess, and that weak government financing and the demands of an aging infrastructure mean cost reductions are clearly going to be the order of the day.  Again, nothing shocking there, but  Florizone has done a nice job of folding some unpleasant realities into a “report on consultations”, in order to put them on the institution’s agenda.

Bernard Shapiro once said that University Presidents could either come in as Gorbachev or Deng.  The first type told everyone that everything had to change, which tended to raise opposition and nothing would get done.  The second type told everyone everything was going to be the same, but then managed to change everything anyway.  By the looks of it, Florizone is going Chinese on this one.