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Tag Archives: OECD

September 13

Some Curious Data From OECD Education at a Glance 2017

The OECD put out its annual Education at a Glance  publication yesterday.  No huge surprises except for the fact that they appear to have killed one of the most-used tables in the whole book (A.1.2, which compared tertiary attainment rates for 25-34 year olds by type of tertiary program – i.e. college v. university) which is an enormous bummer.  The finance data says what it pretty much always says: Canada is the #2 spender overall on higher education at 2.6% of GDP (just behind the US at 2.7%).  If you read my analysis last year, the story is still pretty much the same this year.

But there are some interesting nuggets buried away in the report nevertheless – stuff that other media won’t pick up.  I thought I would highlight two of them in particular which pose some thorny questions about Canadian statistical data and what we think we know about higher education.

Let’s start with the data on expenditures per pupil at the tertiary level.  Figure 1 looks at costs in Short-cycle Tertiary Education (meaning career-oriented, which in Canada’s case means community colleges)

Figure 1: Total Expenditures per Student, Colleges (or equivalent), Select OECD countries

Among major countries, Canada spends the most (from both public and private sources) on college or college-equivalent student.  A couple of countries actually do outspend us (the Austrians and – totally out left field – the Czechs), but the important point here is that our expenditures are nearly 40% above the OECD average.  And if you’re wondering why the UK and the US aren’t there, it’s because the former has no college equivalent and the latter chooses to not to report on colleges on the batshit crazy spurious grounds that even if you’re studying for a (college-equivalent) associate’s degree, the fact that this can be laddered up into a full bachelor’s means everything is really degree-level.  Nonsense, I know, but there we are.

Now, let’s do the same with universities:

Figure 2: Total Expenditures per Student, Universities, Select OECD countries

There’s not much in figure 2 we didn’t already know: US and Canada in terms of total expenditure per university student at the top with us over 50% above the OECD average and Korea way down at the bottom because the Koreans do everything in higher ed on a shoestring.

Now, one new little detail that OECD has added to Education at a Glance this year is that it splits out the portion of total expenditures (that is combine short-cycle and degree-levels)  which are devoted to R&D.  And this data is a little odd.

Figure 3: Total R&D Expenditures per Tertiary Student, Selected OECD Countries

There’s nothing obviously egregiously wrong with figure 3 – except for the data on the USA, which is bananas.  Read literally, it suggests that Canadian universities on average spend twice as much on R&D as American ones do and that’s simply false.

(The explanation, I think, is that Canada and possibly some other countries claim that all professors’ time spent on research – notionally 40% of time or thereabout – counts as “R&D”.  Whereas Americans claim that their universities – which only pay staff for 9 months a year with the rest of the time notionally off for research – do not count time that way, preferring to claim that the government is buying profs’ time with research grants.  Basically, they view universities as mailboxes for cheques to pay for staff time and so all that time money gets claimed as government expenditure on R&D, not university expenditure on R&D.  GERD, not HERD, in the innovation policy lingo.  I think, anyway).

What’s actually a little crazy about figure 3 is that the denominator is all tertiary students, not just degree-level students.  And yet we know that R&D money is pretty heavily concentrated (98%+) in universities.  In a country like Germany where over 99% of tertiary students are in degree-level institutions, that’s not a big deal.  But in Canada, about a third of our students are in short-cycle programs.  Which means, if you do the math, that in fact the R&D expenditures per university student are a little ways north of $9750.  Now here’s figure 3 again, with just degree-level students in the denominator.

Figure 4: Total R&D Expenditures per University Student, Selected OECD Countries

And of course, subtracting these numbers means we can revisit figure 2 and work out total non-R&D expenditures per student in universities.  Canada still remains 40% or so ahead of the OECD average, but is now similarly that far behind the US in per-student expenditure.

Figure 5: Total non-R&D Expenditures per University Student, Selected OECD Countries

Now, to be clear: I’m not saying OECD is wrong, or Statscan is wrong or anything else like that.  What I’m saying is that there appear to be major inconsistencies in the way institutions report data for international comparative purposes on key concepts like R&D.  And that this particular inconsistency means that Canada at least (possibly others) look a lot better vis-à-vis the United States than it probably should.

Just something to keep in mind when making comparisons in future – particularly around research expenditures and performance.

November 24

Who’s More International?

We sometimes think about international higher education as being “a market”. This is not quite true: it’s actually several markets.

Back in the day, international education was mostly about graduate students; specifically, at the doctoral level. Students did their “basic” education at home and then went abroad to get research experience or simply emigrate and become part of the host country’s scientific structure. Nobody sought these students for their money; to the contrary these students were usually getting paid in some way by their host institution. They were not cash cows they did (and still do) contribute significantly to their institutions in other ways, primarily as laboratory workhorses.

In this market, the United States was long the champion since its institutions were the world’s best and could attract top students from all over the world. In absolute terms, it is still the largest importer of doctoral students. But in percentage terms, many other countries have surpassed it. Most of them, like Switzerland, are pretty small and small absolute numbers of international students nevertheless make up a huge proportion of the student body (in this case, 55%). The UK and France, however, are both relatively large markets, and despite their size they now lead the US in terms of percentage of doctoral students who are international (42 and 40% vs 35%). Canada, at 27%, is at right about the OECD average.

Figure 1: International Students at Doctoral Level as Percentage of Total
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Let’s turn now to Master’s students, who most definitely *are* cash-cows. Master’s programs are short degrees, mainly acquired for professional purposes and thus people are prepared to pay a premium for good ones. The biggest market here are for fields like business, engineering and some social sciences. Education could be a very big market for international Master’s but tends not to be  because few countries (or institutions, for that matter) seem to have worked out the secret for international programs in what is, after all a highly regulated profession. In any case, this market segment is where Australia and the UK absolutely dominate, with 40 and 37% of their students being international. Again, Canada is a little bit better than the OECD average (14% vs. 12%).

Figure 2: International Students at Master’s Level as Percentage of Total
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Figure 3 turns to the market which is largest in absolute terms: undergraduate students. Percentages here tend to be smaller because domestic undergraduate numbers are so large, but we’re still talking about international student numbers in the millions here. The leader here is – no, that’s not a misprint – Austria at 19% (roughly half of them come from Germany – for a brief explainer see here). Other countries at the top will look familiar (Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia) and Canada doesn’t look to bad, at 8% (which strikes me as a little low) compared to an OECD average of 5%. What’s most interesting to me is the US number: just 3%. That’s a country which – in better days anyway – has an enormous amount of room to grow its international enrollment and if it hadn’t just committed an act of immense self-harm would have be a formidable competitor for Canada for years to come.

Figure 3: International Students at Bachelor’s Level as Percentage of Total

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Finally, let’s look at sub-baccalaureate credentials, or as OECD calls them, “short-cycle” programs. These are always a little bit complicated to compare because countries’ non-university higher education institutions and credentials are so different. Many countries (e.g. Germany) do not even have short-cycle higher education (they have non-university institutions, but they still give out Bachelor’s degrees). In Canada, obviously, the term refers to diplomas and certificates given out by community colleges. And Canada does reasonably well here: 9% of students are international, compared to 5% across OECD as a whole. But look at New Zealand: 24% of their college-equivalent enrollments are made up of international. Some of those will be going to their Institutes of Technology (which in general are really quite excellent), but some of this will also be students from various Polynesian nations coming to attend one of the Maori Wānanga.
Figure 4: International Students in Short-Cycle Programs as Percentage of Total

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Now if you look across all these categories, two countries stand out as doing really well without being either of the “usual suspects” like Australia or the UK. One is Switzerland, which is quite understandable. It’s a small nation with a few really highly-ranked universities (especially ETH Zurich), is bordered by three of the biggest countries in the EU (Germany, France, Italy), and it provides higher education in each of their national languages. The more surprising one is New Zealand, which is small, has good higher education but no world-leading institutions, and is located in the middle of nowhere (or, at least, 5000 miles from the nearest country which is a net exporter of students). Yet they seem to be able to attract very significant (for them, anyway) numbers of international students in all the main higher education niches. That’s impressive. Canadians have traditionally focused on what countries like Australia and the UK are doing in international higher education because of their past track record. But on present evidence, it’s the Kiwis we should all be watching, and in particular their very savvy export promotion agency Education New Zealand.

Wellington, anyone?

September 16

OECD data says still no underfunding

The OECD’s annual datapalooza-tastic publication Education at a Glance was released yesterday.  The pdf is available for free here.  Let me take you through a couple of the highlights around Higher Education.

For the following comparisons, I show Canada against the rest of the G7 (minus Italy because honestly, economically, who cares?), plus Australia because it’s practically our twin, Korea because it’s cool, Sweden because someone always asks about Scandinavia and the OECD average because hey that just makes sense.  First off, let’s look at attainment rates among inhabitants 25-34.  This is a standard measure to compare how countries have performed in the recent past in terms of providing access to education.

Figure 1: Attainment Rates, 25-34 years olds, selected OECD countries

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*Data for Master’s & above not provided separately for Korea and Japan, and is included in Bachelor’s

Education-fevered Korea is light-years ahead of everyone else on this measure, with 69% of its 25-34 yr old population attaining some kind of credential, but Canada is still close to the top at 59%.  In fact we’re right at the top if you look just at short-cycle (i.e. sub-baccalaureate) PSE (see previous comments here about Canada’s world-leading strengths in College education); in terms of university attainment alone, our 34% is slightly below the OECD average of 36%.

Now let’s turn to finances.  Figure 2 shows total public and private expenditure on Tertiary educational institutions.

Figure 2: Public and Private Expenditures on Tertiary Institutions, as a Percentage of GDP, Selected OECD Countries

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Canada spends 2.5% of GDP on institutions, just below the US but ahead of pretty much everybody else, more than 50% higher than the OECD average.  For those of you who have spent the last couple of years arguing how great Germany because of free tuition is and why can’t Canadian governments spend money like Germany, the answer is clearly they can.  All they would need to do is cut spending by about 30%.

(If you’re wondering how UK claims 58% of all money in higher ed comes from government when the latest data from Universities UK shows it to be 25%, the answer I think is that this is 2013 data, when only 1/3 of the shift from a mainly state-based university funding system to mainly student-based funding system had been completed)

Turning now to the issue of how that money is split between different parts of the tertiary sector, here we see Canada’s college sector standing out again: by some distance, it receives more funding than any other comparable sector in the OECD (with 0.9% of GDP in funding).  The university sector, by contrast,  gets only 1.6% of GDP, which is closer to the OECD average of 1.4%.

Figure 3: Expenditure on Tertiary Institutions, by sector, as a Percentage of GDP, selected OECD countries

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*US data not available for short-course, 2.6% is combined total

Now this is the point where some of you will jump up and say “see, Usher?  We’re only barely above the OECD average! Canadian universities aren’t as well-funded as you usually make out.”  But hold on.  We’re talking % of GDP here.  And Canada, within the OECD is a relatively rich country.  And, recall from figure 1 that out university attainment rate is below the OECD average, which means those dollars are being spread over fewer students.  So when you look just at expenditures per student in degree-level programs, you get the following:

Figure 4: Annual Expenditures per Student in $US at PPP, Degree-level Programs only, Selected OECD Countries

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Again, Canada is very close to the top of the OECD charts here: at just over $25,000 US per student we spend over 50% more per student than the OECD average (and Germany, incidentally – just sayin’).

So, yeah, I’m going to give you my little sermon again: Canada’s is not an underfunded university system by any metric that makes the remotest bit of sense.  If we’re underfunded, everyone’s underfunded, which kind of robs the term of meaning.

That doesn’t mean cuts are easy: our system is rigid and brittle and even slowing down the rate of increase of funds causes problems.  But Perhaps if we directed even a fraction of the attention we pay to “underfunding” to the problem of our universities’ brittleness we might be on our way to a better system.

I won’t hold my breath.

June 15

A Canadian Accomplishment

Often, I think, I am seen as a bit of a downer on Canada.  It goes with the territory: my role in Canadian higher education is i) “the guy who knows what’s going on in other countries and ii) “the guy who pokes the bear”.  So frequently I ending up writing blogs saying why isn’t Canada doing X or wouldn’t it be great if we were more like Y, and people get the impression I’m down on the North.

Not true.  I think we have a pretty good system, one most of the world would envy if we could ever stop admiring our minute inter-provincial differences and explain our system properly.  Among OECD countries, we’re always in the top third of pretty much any higher education metric you want to use.  Never at the very top, but reasonably close.  It’s just that it’s not cheap, is all.  We’re never going to win any prizes for efficiency; countries like Israel, the Netherlands and Australia perform far better on those metrics.

But there is one area in which Canada does a fantastic job and doesn’t even realise it.  And that is the extent to which it has a strong culture of work-oriented higher education which is matched by few other countries.

Let’s start with our colleges and polytechnics, which for the most part deliver labour market-oriented professional education at a level known by UNESCO and OECD as “Type 5B” (bachelor’s degree programs are called “Type A”).  Among OECD countries only Japan and Korea do a greater proportion of young people have this kind of education.

Figure 1: Level 5 (post-secondary education) Attainment Rates of 25-34 year olds, Select OECD Countries

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We sometimes hear complaints from colleges and polytechnics about not getting enough respect, but the fact is, Canada has arguably the best-funded and most successful non-university post-secondary education system in the world.  We should say it, and celebrate it.

What about the university system, you say?  Well, the University of Cincinnati may have invented co-op education, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that the University of Waterloo perfected it.  Last time I checked, they were arranging over 17,000 co-op experiences for students every year.  And institutions across the country have adopted the idea as well.  Personally, I think that’s a result of competition from our excellent college sector: it keeps universities on their toes.

 

And OK, it’s easy to scoff at university claims that 40% of students get some kind of work-integrated learning experience because so many of them are so short-term and of not-particularly high quality, and because at least a few universities seem to care more about classifying as things as possible as “experiential” than actually creating more such experiences: but so what?  The fact that we’re having the debate at all suggests we are on the right track.  And that’s a sight better than most other countries I could name.

Now, I know some of you are going to say “but Germany! Switzerland! Apprentices!”.  And there are some admirable things about those systems (though, as I have said before), Canadians deeply misunderstand what it is apprenticeships in Germany actually do).  Namely, they aren’t post-secondary in nature (note how low Germany’s Type B score is in the figure above); rather, they’re part of the secondary system and in many ways are designed to keep people out of the post-secondary system.  It’s hard to compare out system to theirs.

So, in sum: could we do more on experiential and work-integrated learning?  Of course we could (and should).  But stop and smell the roses: compared to most places, we do a pretty good job on this stuff.  And we should acknowledge that to ourselves even if, in true Canadian fashion, we’re a little reluctant to say so to anyone else.

November 25

The 2015 OECD Education at a Glance

So the OECD’s Education at a Glance was published yesterday.  It’s taken a couple of months longer than usual because of the need to convert  into the new International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) system.  No, don’t ask; it’s better not to know.

I won’t say there’s a whole lot new in this issue that will be of interest to PSE-types.  One point of note is that Statscan has – for no obvious or stated reason – substantially restated Canadian expenditure on tertiary educational institutions, downwards.  In last year’s edition, you may recall that they claimed 2011 spending was 2.8% of GDP, which I thought was a tad high (I couldn’t get it to go over 2.43%).  They are now saying that last year was in fact 2.6% of GDP, and this year is 2.5%.  That still puts Canada well ahead of most countries, and more than 50% ahead of the OECD average.

Figure 1: Selected OECD Countries’ Spending on Tertiary Education as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product

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Next, the shift to the ISCED system has produced a slight change to the way attainment data is presented.  Basically, they make it easier to tease-out different levels of attainment above the bachelor’s level; but this makes no difference for Canada, because we can’t actually measure these things.  The problem is our Labor Force Survey, which has a very vague and sketchy set of responses on educational attainment (basically, you can only answer “college” or “university” on attainment, so our college numbers include all sorts of weird private short course programs, and our university numbers make no distinction between types of degrees).  Still, for what it’s worth, here’s how attainment rates for young Canadians (age 25-34) stack up against other countries.

Figure 2: Selected OECD Countries’ Tertiary Attainment Rates, 2012

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Those of you familiar with the “Canada’s number 1” rhetoric that accompanied previous EAG releases may do a double-take at this graph.  Yes, certainly, Canada is still close to the top if you include all of post-secondary education.  But it used to be that we were also at – or close to – the top on university education, as well; now, we’re actually below the OECD average.  What the heck is going on?

Well, it helps to look back a decade or so to see what the picture looked like then.

Figure 3: Selected OECD Countries’ Tertiary Attainment Rates, 2003

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Much of what has changed is the way this data is presented.  First, the old 5A/5B excluded attainment at the doctoral level, which the new system does not.  Since European countries tend to have slightly higher doctoral degree award rates than we do, this cuts the difference a bit.  A bigger issue is that fact that post-Bologna, a lot of European countries simply did away with short-cycle degrees from polytechnics and fachochschule, and re-classified them as university degrees.  Finland thus went from a system with 23% attainment at 5A (university) level, and 17% at 5B (college or polytechnic) level, to a system that is now simply 40% degree level, or above.  In other words, tertiary attainment rates are exactly the same in Finland as they were a decade ago, but credentials have simply been re-labelled.  Something similar also happened in Germany.

While reclassification explains part of the change, it doesn’t explain it all.  Some countries are genuinely seeing much bigger increases in university attainment than we are.  There is South Korea, where attainment rates ballooned from 47% of all 25-34 year olds in 2003, to 68% in just a decade (30% to 45% at the university level alone), as well as Australia, where university attainment has gone from 25% to 38%.

Those are some quite amazing numbers.  Makes you wonder why we can’t do that, as well.

November 05

World-Class Universities in the Great Recession: Who’s Winning the Funding Game?

Governments always face a choice between access and excellence: does it make more sense to focus resources on a few institutions in order to make them more “world-class”, or does it make sense to build capacity more widely and increase access?  During hard times, these choices become more acute.  In the US, for instance, the 1970s were a time when persistent federal budget deficits as a result of the Vietnam War, combined with a period of slow growth, caused higher education budgets to contract.  Institutions often had to choose between their access function and their research function, and the latter did not always win.

My question today (excerpted from the paper I gave in Shanghai on Monday) is: how are major OECD countries handling that same question in the post-2008 landscape?

Below, I have assembled data on real institutional expenditures per-student in higher education, in ten countries: Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan.  I use expenditures rather than income because the latter tends to be less consistent, and is prone to sudden swings.  Insofar as is possible, and in order to reduce the potential impact of different reporting methods and definitions of classes of expenditure, I use the most encompassing definition of expenditures given the available data.  The availability of data across countries is uneven; I’ll spare you the details, but it’s reasonably good in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and Sweden, decent in Switzerland, below-par in Japan, the Netherlands, and Germany, and godawful in France.  For the first six countries, I can compare with reasonable confidence how “top” universities (as per yesterday, I’m defining “top” as being among the top-100 of the Academic Ranking of World Class Universities, or the ARWU-100 for short).  In the six countries with the best data, I can differentiate between ARWU-100 universities and the rest; in the other four, I have only partial data, which nevertheless leads me to believe that the results for “top” universities is not substantially different from what happened to all institutions.

Figure 1 basically summarizes the findings:

Figure 1: Changes in Real Per-Student Funding Since 2008 for ARWU-100 and All Universities, Selected OECD Countries

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Here’s what you can take from that figure:

1)  Since 2008, total per-student expenditures have risen in only three countries: the UK, Sweden, and Japan.  In the UK, the increase comes from the massive new tuition fees introduced in 2012.  In Sweden, a lot of the per-student growth comes from the fact that enrolments are decreasing rapidly (more on that in a future blog).  In Germany, per-student expenditure is down since 2008, but way up since 2007.  The reason?  The federal-länder “higher education pact” raised institutional incomes enormously in 2008, but growth in student numbers (a desired outcome of the pact) meant that this increase was gradually whittled away.

2)  “Top” Institutions do better than the rest of the university sector in the US, Canada, and Switzerland (but for different reasons), but worse in Sweden and Australia.  Some of this has to do with differences in income patterns, but an awful lot has to do with changes in enrolment patterns too, which are going in different directions in different countries.

3)  Australian universities are getting hammered.  Seriously.  Since 2008, their top four universities have seen their per-student income fall by 15% in real terms.  A small portion of that seems to be an issue of some odd accounting that elevated expenditures in 2008, and hence exaggerates expenses in the base year; but even without that, it’s a big drop.  You can see why they want higher fees.

4)  Big swings in funding don’t make much short-term difference in rankings – at least at the top.  Since 2008, top-100 universities in the US have increased their per-student expenditure by 10%, while Australian unis have fallen by 15%.  That’s a 25% swing in total.  And yet there has been almost no relative movement between the two in any major rankings.  When we think about great universities, we need to think more about stocks of assets like professors and laboratories, and less about flows of funds.

So there’s no single story around the world, but there are some interesting national policy choices out there.

If anyone’s interested in the paper, I will probably post it sometime next week after I fix up a couple of graphs: if you can’t wait, just email me (ausher@higheredstrategy.com), and I’ll send you a draft.

April 01

Some Inter-Provincial Finance Comparisons

Last week, I blogged about how OECD figures showed Canada had the highest level of PSE spending in the world, at 2.8% of GDP.  Many of you wrote to me asking: i) if the picture was the same when we looked at other measures, like per-capita spending or spending per-student; and, ii) could I break things down by province, instead of nationally.  I am ever your servant, so I tried working on this.

I quickly came up against a problem, which was simply that I could in no way replicate the OECD numbers.  Using numbers from FIUC (for universities) and FINCOL (for colleges), the biggest expenditure number I could come up with for the 2011-12 year was $41.75 billion in institutional income.  Dividing this by the 2011 GDP figure of $1.72 billion used in Education at a Glance (itself inexplicably about 3% smaller than the $1.77 billion figure Statscan reports for 2011) gives me 2.43%, rather than the 2.8% Statscan reported to OECD.  There is presumably an explanation for this (my best guess is that it has something to with student assistance), and I have emailed some folks over there to see what’s going on.  But in the meantime, we can still have some fun with inter-provincial comparisons.

Let’s start with what provinces spend on universities:

Figure 1: University Income by Province and Source as a Percentage of GDP

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In most provinces, total university expenditure is right around two percent of GDP.  Only in two provinces (Saskatchewan, Alberta) is it significantly below this, and only in two (Nova Scotia, Prince Edwards Island) is it significantly above.  In terms of public expenditure, the average across the country is about one percent of GDP.  Nova Scotia, at 3.2%, is likely by some distance the highest-spending jurisdiction in the entire world.

Now, some of you are no doubt wondering: how the heck can Nova Scotia universities spend two and a half times what Alberta universities spend (in GDP terms) when the latter are so bright and shiny and the former are increasingly looking a little battered?  Well, I’ll get more into this tomorrow, but the quick answer is: Alberta’s GDP is eight times higher than Nova Scotia’s, but it only has about three times as many students.

Of course, universities aren’t the whole story.  Let’s look at colleges:

Figure 2: College Income by Province and Source as a Percentage of GDP

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This is a wee bit more interesting.  Most provinces are bunched closely around the 0.5% of GDP mark, except for Quebec and Prince Edward Island.  If we were using international standards here, where college is usually interpreted as being ISCED level 5 (or level 5B before the 2011 revision), Quebec’s figures would be much lower because CEGEP programs leading to university are considered level 4 (that is, post-secondary, but not actually tertiary), and hence would be excluded.

But PEI is the real stunner here: apparently Holland College accounts for nearly 1.2% of GDP.  This sounds ludicrous to me and I have no explanation for it, but having looked up Holland College’s financials it seems to check out.

Here’s the combined picture:

Figure 3: Total PSE Income by Province and Source as a Percentage of GDP

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So, what we see here is that most provinces again cluster around spending 2.5% of GDP, which would put their spending roughly on par with the world’s second-biggest spender, Korea (but slightly behind the United States).  Saskatchewan, at 2% of GDP, would still be ranked very highly, while Alberta, at 1.73% would be only a bit above the OECD average.

The crazy stuff is at the other end: PEI and Nova Scotia, where higher education spending exceeds 3.75% of GDP.  And yeah, their GDP is lower than most of the rest of the country (GDP/capita in those two provinces, at $39,800 and $41,500, respectively, is less than half what it is in Alberta), but there are lots of OECD countries with GDPs of roughly that level of income (e.g. Spain) who spend about a third as much on education.

Tomorrow, we’ll look a bit more at per-student spending.

March 24

Banning the Term “Underfunding”

Somehow I missed this when the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014 came out, but apparently Canada’s post-secondary system is now officially the best funded in the entire world.

I know, I know.  It’s a hard idea to accept when Presidents of every student union, faculty association, university, and college have been blaming “underfunding” for virtually every ill in post-secondary education since before Air Farce jokes started taking the bus to get to the punchline.  But the fact is, we’re tops.  Numero uno.  Take a look:

Figure 1: Percentage of GDP Spent on Higher Education Institutions, Select OECD Countries, 2011

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For what I believe is the first time ever, Canada is outstripping both the US (2.7%) and Korea (2.6%).  At 2.8% of GDP, spending on higher education is nearly twice what it is in the European Union.

Ah, you say, that’s probably because so much of our funding comes from private sources.  After all, don’t we always hear that tuition is at, or approaching, 50% of total funding in universities?  Well, no.  That stat only applies to operating expenditures (not total expenditures), and is only valid in Nova Scotia and Ontario.  Here’s what happens if we look only at public spending in all those countries:

Figure 2: Percentage of GDP Spent on Higher Education Institutions from Public Sources, Select OECD Countries, 2011

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While it’s true that Canada does have a high proportion of funds coming from private sources, public sector support to higher education still amounts to 1.6% of GDP, which is substantially above the OECD average.  In fact, our public expenditure on higher education is the same as in Norway and Sweden; among all OECD countries, only Finland and Denmark (not included in graph) are higher.

And this doesn’t even consider the fact that Statscan and CMEC don’t include expenditures like Canada Education Savings Grants and tax credits, which together are worth another 0.2% of GDP, because OECD doesn’t really have a reporting category for oddball expenditures like that.  The omission doesn’t change our total expenditure, but it does affect the public/private balance.  Instead of being 1.6% of GDP public, and 1.2% of GDP private, it’s probably more like 1.8% or 1.9% public, which again would put us at the absolute top of the world ranking.

So it’s worth asking: when people say we are “underfunded”, what do they mean?  Underfunded compared to who?  Underfunded for what?  If we have more money than anyone else, and we still feel there isn’t enough to go around, maybe we should be looking a lot more closely at *how* we spend the money rather than at *how much* we spend.

Meantime, I think there should be a public shaming campaign against use of the term “underfunding” in Canada.  It’s embarrassing, once you know the facts.

January 29

Universities and Economic Growth

If you read the OECD/World Bank playbook on higher education, it’s all very simple.  If you raise investments into higher education and research, growth will follow.

At the big-picture national level, this is probably true.  But it’s maddeningly inspecific.  What is the actual mechanism by which higher spending on a set of institutions translates into growth?  Is it the number of trained graduates produced?  Is it the quality or type of education they receive?  Does concentrating research in certain areas mean greater growth?  What about the balance between “pure” and “applied” research (insofar as those are useful distinctions)? What about technology transfer strategies?

Most importantly for a country like Canada: what about geography?  Is a strategy of widely distributing funds better than a strategy of concentration for spurring economic growth?  Should urban universities – nearer the centres of economic production – get more than universities in smaller conurbations?

Anyone telling you they have the definitive answer to these questions is lying.  Fact is, the literature on most of these topics is embarrassingly thin and provides little to no guidance to governments.  And the literature as it pertains to individual universities is even thinner.  Say you want an institution to “do better” at helping deliver regional economic growth: what do you ask it to do, exactly?  Here, the literature mainly consists of anecdotes of success parading as universally-applicable rules for university conduct (this European Union document is an example).  Which of course is tosh.

One solution you often see to the problem of decreased regional economic growth in smaller cities is for PSE institutions to “work more with industry”.  But if your local industry is in decline, there are limits to this strategy.  You can educate more people in a given field in order to lower the price of skilled labour.  You can get profs to work on upstream blue-sky research that will revolutionize the field, but the spillovers are enormous and the likelihood they will be captured by local business is small.  You can get your profs to work on downstream innovation with local business, but that’s not foolproof. Many companies won’t have the receptor capacity to work with you, either because they are too small or because they are too big and rely on a centralized R&D system, which more often than not is located outside the country (usually the US).

From a PSE point-of-view there’s two ways you can go from here.  There’s the route of “give us more money and we’ll give the local workforce a broader set of skills”.  But the fact that a local population has high levels of relatively generic skills does not necessarily make a region a particularly attractive place for investment.  I’m not an economic geographer, but it seems to me that one of the driving forces of the modern era is that the most profitable companies and industries are those that effectively capitalize on agglomerations of very specific types of talent.  And by and large, to get agglomerations of very specific types of talent you tend to need a large population to begin with, which is why big cities keep getting bigger.

The other option is a “place your bets” approach.  For emerging industries to find the right kinds of skills in a particular region, you have to place bets.  You have to say: “we’re going to invest in training and facilities to produce workers for X, Y, and Z industries, which at the moment do not exist in our region, and indeed may never do so.  Cape Breton University’s emphasis on renewable energy is a good example of this strategy.  It’s a bet: if they get good at this and produce enough graduates, maybe within a few years there will be enough of a talent agglomeration that business will go there and invest.

Maybe.  And maybe not.  Problem is, public universities and their government paymasters get nervous about “maybes”.  Higher education is a risk-averse industry.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a case study in this: Southwestern Ontario.

September 11

Those OECD Attainment Numbers

The OECD’s annual Education at a Glance publication was released on Tuesday.  There weren’t a whole lot of shockers in there, but one thing that always sets Canadians crowing is the table that looks at tertiary educational attainment because, at first glance, we seem to do really well on that measure.  To wit:

Figure 1: Tertiary Attainment Rates, 25-64 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012

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Yay Canada!  We’re number one!

Well, hang on a second.  A lot of that is because we’ve been in the mass higher education game longer than anyone else: indeed our 55-64 year olds are in a class of their own.  But when it comes to educating young people, it’s a different story.  To wit:

Figure 2: Tertiary Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012

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Okay, still not bad.  Our attainment rate is higher among young people than the general population (57% vs. 53%), which means we’re making some progress, albeit slow.  And we’re still 18 points above the OECD average.  But notice we’re third now, behind Korea and Japan.

Now let’s look specifically at degree-level attainment rates – or, what in international educational statistics-speak is known as “Tertiary Level 5A” – as opposed to tertiary rates.

Figure 3: Tertiary 5A Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012

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See, now this is quite a different picture.  If we’re simply looking at obtaining degrees, Canada is actually below the OECD average.  We’d need to increase our degree attainment rates by almost 50% to be in first place here.  The reason for this, of course, is that unlike most countries, Canada has a big “Tertiary B” sector, as shown below in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Tertiary 5B Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012

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Interpreting the 5B data is a bit tricky, partly because Tertiary B data looks very different depending on the country, but also partly because the Canadian data is a mess.  In some countries, Tertiary B is purely vocational; in others (for instance, Korean and the US) the figures include junior college associate degrees, which in other countries would be considered incomplete 5A degrees.

In Canada, the Tertiary B figure is mostly traditional community college/polytechnic completers below degree level.  But it also includes a number of other types that make it not entirely comparable to other countries, including:

  • CEGEP Graduates who Never Went on to Universities.  Few other countries would consider people with only 13 years of schooling to be Tertiary B;
  • Trade/Apprenticeship Certificate Holders.  In Europe, where apprenticeship systems are considered part of the secondary system, these kinds of programs would be considered level 4 or even level 3;
  • Private Vocational College Credential Holders.  Again, these are usually one year or less in duration, and it’s unlikely most countries would consider them equivalent to Tertiary B.

Now, there’s nothing sinister here – these differences aren’t an attempt to “juice” our numbers.  The first two issues are the result of structural differences – part and parcel of the difficulties of trying to standardize data internationally across not-entirely-parallel systems.  The third one – private vocational credentials – is an outgrowth of the fact that this data is taken from various Labour Force Surveys, and the wording of the relevant question on our survey is just a little looser than in other countries.

All of this is to say that a “Canada’s Number One” narrative based on the OECD numbers isn’t necessarily warranted.  In some ways, we may even be falling behind.

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