HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Prestige

April 06

Lessons from Mid-Century Soviet Higher Education

I’ve been reading Benjamin Tromly’s excellent book Making the Soviet Intelligentsia: Universities and Intellectual Life under Stalin and Khrushchev. It’s full of fascinating tidbits with surprising relevance to higher education dilemmas of the here and now. To wit:

1) Access is mostly about cultural capital.

There were times and places where communists waged war on the educated, because the educated were by definition bourgeois. In China during the cultural revolution, or in places like Poland and East Germany after WWII, admission to higher education was effectively restricted to the children of “politically reliable classes”, meaning workers and peasants (if you wondered why urban Chinese parents are so OK with the punishing gaokao system, it’s because however insane and sadistic it seems, it’s better than what came before it).

But in the postwar Soviet Union, things were very different. Because of the purges of the 1930s, a whole class of replacement white-collar functionaries had emerged, loyal to Stalin, and he wanted to reward them. This he did by going entirely the opposite direction to his east European satellite regimes and making access to higher education purely about academic “merit” as measured by exams and the like. The result? By 1952, in a regime with free tuition and universal stipends for students, roughly 80% of students had social origin in the professional classes (i.e. party employees, engineers, scientists, teachers and doctors). The children of workers and farmers, who made up the overwhelming majority of the country’s population, had to make do with just the other 20%.

2)  The middle-class will pull whatever strings necessary to maintain their kids’ class position.

Khrushchev was not especially happy about the development of a hereditary intelligentsia, which made itself out to morally superior because of its extra years of education. Basically, he felt students were putting on airs and needed to be reminded that all that training they were receiving was in order to serve the working class, not to stand above it. And so, in 1958, he tried to shake things up by slapping a requirement on university admissions that reserved 80 per cent of places to individuals who has spent two years in gainful employment. This, he felt, would transform the student body and make it more at one with the toiling masses.

This has some predictably disastrous effects on admissions, as making people spend two years out of school before taking entrance exams tends to have fairly calamitous effects on exam results. But while the measure did give a big leg up to the children of workers and peasants (their numbers at universities doubled after the change, though many dropped out soon afterwards due to inadequate preparation), what was interesting was how far the Moscow/Leningrad elites would go to try to rig the system in their children’s favour. Some would try to get their children into two year “mental labor” jobs such as working as a lab assistant; others would find ways to falsify their children’s “production records”. Eventually the policy was reversed because the hard science disciplines argued the new system was undermining their ability to recruit the best and brightest. But in the meantime, the intelligentsia managed to keep their share of enrolments above 50%, which was definitely not what Khrushchev wanted.

3) Institutional prestige is not a function of neo-liberalism.

We sometimes hear about how rankings and institutional prestige are all a product of induced competition, neo-liberalism, yadda yadda. Take one look at the accounts of Soviet students and you’ll know that’s nonsense. Prestige hierarchies exist everywhere, and in the mid-century Soviet Union, everyone knew that the place to study was Lomonosov Moscow State University, end of story.

Remember Joseph Fiennes’ final monologue in Enemy at the Gates?  “In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts…”. It’s true of universities too. Pecking orders exist regardless of regime type.

4) The graduate labour market is about self-actualization

One of the big selling points of the Soviet higher education system was the claim that “all graduates received a job at the end of their studies”. To the ears of western students from the 1970s onwards, who faced the potential of unemployment or underemployment after graduation, that sounded pretty good.

Except that it didn’t to Soviet students. A lot of those “guaranteed” jobs either took students a long way from their studies they loved (“I trained to be a nuclear scientist and now you want me to teach secondary school?”) or the big cities they loved (“I’m being sent to which Siberian oblast”?) or both. And failure to accept the job that was assigned was – in theory at least – punishable by imprisonment.

Yet despite the threat of punishment, Soviet students found a way to evade the rules. Getting married (preferably to someone from Moscow) was a good way to avoid being sent to the provinces. Many simply deserted their posts and found work elsewhere. And some – get this – enrolled in grad school to avoid a job they didn’t want (would never happen here of course).

The point here being: people have dreams for themselves, and these rarely match up neatly with the labour market, whether that market is free or planned. There’s no system in the world that can satisfy everyone; at some point, all systems have to disappoint at least some people. But that doesn’t mean they will take their disappointment lying down. Dreams are tough to kill.

 

November 09

Shifting Sources of Prestige

The currency of academia is prestige.  Professors try to increase theirs by publishing better and better papers, giving talks at conferences and so on.  Becoming more prestigious means offers to co-author with a more illustrious class of academics, increasing the chance of book deals at better university presses, etc.  And at the institutional level, universities become more prestigious by being able to attract and nurture a more prestigious group of professors, something which is done by lavishing them with higher salaries, more research funds, better equipment, better graduate students (and to a lesser degree undergraduate students too).  All this has been clear for a long time.

In any given field, we might know which ten or twenty people are at the top globally – Nobel Prize winners for instance (speaking of which, this Freakonomics podcast on How to Win a Nobel Prize is hugely informative and entertaining on the how the Swedish committees decide who really is “top of the field”).  But after that it is pretty hazy: one’s list of the top twenty health researchers who have yet to win the Nobel for Medicine probably depends a lot on what sub-field you’re in and how you evaluate the last decade’s relative progress in various other subfields.  Same with universities before rankings came along.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Toronto, McGill and UBC are the top three in Canada.  But after that it gets fuzzy.  If you were in Medicine, you might think number four was McMaster; in Engineering Waterloo and in Arts Montreal or Alberta.

Then along came large bibliometric databases, and shortly thereafter, rankings.  And then we knew how to measure prestige.  We did it by measuring publications, citations, and whatnot: the more, the better.  Universities began managing towards this metric, which built on longstanding trends in most disciplines towards more demanding publication requirements for tenure (the first known use of the phrase “publish or perish” dates from 1942).  Want prestige?  Research. Publish.  Repeat.

But I get the real sense that this starting to change, for universities if not individual professors.  I can’t provide much strong evidence here: you won’t see the change in the usual rankings because they are hardwired for old definitions of prestige.  Nevertheless, if you look around at which universities are “hot”, and receive the acclaim, it’s not necessarily the ones who are doing the publishing; rather, it’s the ones that are actively contributing to the dynamism of their local economies.  MIT’s gradual overtaking of Harvard is one example of this.  But so too is the fuss over institutions like SUNY Albany and its associated nanotech cluster, Akron and its Advanced materials cluster.  In Canada, the obvious example is Waterloo but even here in Toronto, Ryerson has become a “hot” university in part because of its focus on interacting with business in a couple of key areas such as tech (albeit in quite a different way from Waterloo).

To be clear, it’s not a case of publishing v. working with industry.  Generally speaking, companies like to know that the people they are working with are in fact at the front of their fields; no publishing, no partnership.  But it’s more of a general orientation: increasingly, the prestigious universities are the ones who not only have a concentration of science and engineering talent, but also have a sufficiently outward focus to act as an anchoring institution to one or more industrial clusters.

What’s interesting about this trend is that it has some clear winners and losers.   To even have a hope of working in an industrial centre, you need to be in a mid-size city which already has some industry (even if, as in Akron’s case, it’s down in the dumps).  That works for Canada, because (Queen’s excepted) nearly all our big and prestigious universities are in mid-sized or large cities.  In the US, however, it’s more difficult.  Their universities are often older, built in a time where people believed universities were better-off situated away from the “sinful” cities.  And so you have big, huge research institutions in places like Champaign, Illinois or Columbia Missouri which are going to struggle in this new environment (even places like Madison and Ann Arbour are far enough away from big cities to make thing problematic).  Basically, the Morrill Act is now imposing some pretty serious legacy costs on American higher education.

Part of the reason this shift hasn’t been more widely acknowledged is that bibliometrics are a whole lot easier to measure than economic value (and are valued more in tenure discussions).  But some people are starting to have a go at this problem, too.  More on this tomorrow.

June 08

Are NSERC decisions “skewed” to bigger institutions?

That’s the conclusion reached by a group of professors from – wait for it – smaller Canadian universities, as published recently in PLOS One. I urge you to read the article, if only to understand how technically rigorous research without an ounce of common sense can make it through the peer-review process.

Basically, what the paper does is rigorously prove that “both funding success and the amount awarded varied with the size of the applicant’s institution. Overall, funding success was 20% and 42% lower for established researchers from medium and small institutions, compared to their counterpart’s at large institutions.” 

They go on to hypothesize that:

“…applicants from medium and small institutions may receive lower scores simply because they have weaker research records, perhaps as a result of higher teaching or administrative commitments compared to individuals from larger schools. Indeed, establishment of successful research programs is closely linked to the availability of time to conduct research, which may be more limited at smaller institutions. Researchers at small schools may also have fewer local collaborators and research-related resources than their counterparts at larger schools. Given these disparities, observed funding skew may be a consequence of the context in which applicants find themselves rather than emerging from a systemic bias during grant proposal evaluation.”

Oh my God – they have lower success rates because they have weaker research records?  You mean the system is working exactly as intended?

Fundamentally, this allegedly scientific article is making a very weird political argument.  The reason profs at smaller universities don’t get grants, according to these folks, is because they got hired by worse universities –  which means they don’t get the teaching release time, the equipment and whatnot that would allow them to compete on an even footing with the girls and boys at bigger schools.  To put it another way, their argument is that all profs have inherently equal ability and are equally deserving of research grants, it’s just that some by sheer random chance got allocated to weaker universities, which have put a downer on their career, and if NSERC doesn’t actively ignore actual outputs and perform some sort of research grant affirmative action, then it is guilty of “skewing” funding.

Here’s another possible explanation: yes, faculty hired by bigger, richer, more research-intensive institutions (big and research-intensive are not necessarily synonymous, but they are in Canada) have all kinds of advantages over faculty hired by smaller, less research-intensive universities.  But maybe, just maybe, faculty research quality is not randomly distributed.  Maybe big rich universities use their resources mainly to attract faculty deemed to have greater research potential.  Maybe they don’t always guess quite right about who has that potential and who doesn’t but on the whole it seems likelier than not that the system works more or less as advertised.

And so, yes, there is a Matthew effect (“for unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance”) at work in Science: the very top of the profession gets more money than the strata below them and that tends to increase the gap in outcomes (salary, prestige, etc).  But that’s the way the system was designed.  If you want to argue against that, go ahead. But at least do it honestly and forthrightly: don’t use questionable social science methods to allege NSERC of “bias” when it is simply doing what has always been asked to do.

December 02

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Universities and Colleges

One of the problems in higher education is that there’s a whole lot of effort expended on “who’s the best” (which, as measured by most rankings, is some function of money, age, and size), and not a lot of serious effort put into answering the question: “how can institutions get better”?  (Or at least, in finding answers that don’t boil down to: publish more/get more international students.)

I get to see a fair number of universities around the world.  And so while I don’t claim the following list is based on anything like empirical data, I can say that nearly all good universities follow these same seven habits.

1)     They are outwardly focussed. Highly effective universities understand that little can be accomplished inside a single institution.  Effective universities need partners – other universities, businesses, governments, whatever.  But building effective partnerships requires three things: having a very good understanding of what those potential partners want, having an understanding of what they think of you as a partner, and having a willingness to change in order to improve their chances of making better partnerships.  Some of this depends on having the other qualities listed below; but at root, it depends on being focussed on possibilities that exist outside the university, and doing whatever it takes to exploit them.

2)     They focus on what they can control, not what they can’t.  The surest sign a university isn’t effective is that it spends a lot of time moaning about what government is or isn’t doing.  Sure, government can have positive or deleterious effects.  And it’s important for universities to make their voices heard in order to promote good policies over bad ones.  But it’s even more important not to dwell on this subject.  In most developed counties – and certainly here in Canada – institutions have sufficient control over finance and policy to make an enormous amount of difference over their own situation.  Effective institutions maintain focus on this fact.

3)     They Pay Attention to Hiring.  At the end of the day, an institution’s nature and culture is a product of the hiring process.  Make a mistake – bring in a prof who is a whinger, or who is inclined to slack off gradually after gaining tenure – and you infect a department for a generation.  Every academic hire shapes the institution’s academic profile; every academic hire is implicitly a multi-million dollar decision.  There is literally no job more important at a post-secondary institutions than hiring.

4)     They Set High Standards.  There cannot be high performance without standards.  These need not always be written down; in fact, arguably, at the very highest-performing institutions there is no need for codified standards.  But one way or another, institutions need to ensure that units are performing at their best; they also need to have ways to be seen to be holding people accountable for working at the best.

5)    They Tell Stories.  Strong institutional cultures require a common belief in a narrative about what makes the institution great.  Great university and college leaders spend a lot of time finding ways to create and reinforce those narratives.  The sign of a great institution?  People all tell the same anecdotes to explain how and why their institution came to greatness.

6)     They Know How to Decide and Move On.  Whether they have strong Presidencies, or whether they have remarkably effective governance processes, effective universities don’t faff around.  They take strategy seriously and they take important decisions with due consideration, but not undue delay.

7)     Respect.  The best institutions treat everyone with respect.  Students.  Staff.  Stakeholders (particularly government and taxpayers).  That doesn’t mean they bend over to accommodate every whim from these groups; it just means they treat them with due regard.  Students and staff aren’t patronized; discussions with government and the public are honest and evidence-based.

This isn’t to say money, age, and size don’t help.  But in their absence, these seven traits make it easy to distinguish between the top performers and the rest.

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.

November 04

How Canadian Universities Got Both Big and Rich

Earlier this week, I gave a speech in Shanghai on whether countries are choosing to focus higher education spending on top institutions as a response to the scarcity of funds since the start of the global financial crisis.  I thought some of you might be interested in this, so over the next two days I’ll be sharing some of the data from that presentation.  The story I want to tell today is about how exceptional the Canadian story has been among the top countries in higher education.

(A brief aside before I get started on this: there is nothing like a quick attempt to find financial information on universities in other countries to put our own gripes – Ok, my gripes – about institutional transparency into some perspective.  Seriously, you could fill the Louvre with what French universities don’t publish about their own activities.)

For the purpose of this exercise, I compare what is happening to universities generally in a country, to what is happening at its “top” universities.  To keep things simple, I define as a “top” university any university that makes the Top 100 of the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World-class Universities (ARWU).  In Canada, that means UBC, Toronto, McGill, and McMaster (yes, it’s an arbitrary criteria, but it happens to work internationally).  I use expenditures rather than income because fluctuations in endowment income make income numbers too noisy.  Figure 1 shows the evolution of funding at Canadian universities in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) dollars.

Figure 1: Real Change in Expenditures, Canadian Universities 2000-01 to 2012-13, Indexed to 2000-01 (Source: Statistics Canada/CAUBO Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey)

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So this is actually a big deal.  On aggregate, Canadian universities saw their expenditures grow by nearly 70% in real dollars between 2000 and 2010.  For “top” universities, the figure was a little over 80%  (the gap, for the most part, is explained by more research dollars).  Very few countries in the developed world saw this kind of growth.  It’s really quite extraordinary.

But a lot of that money went not to “improvement”, per se, but rather to expanding access.  Here are the same figures, adjusted for growth in student numbers.

Figure 2: Real Change in Per-Student Expenditures, Canadian Universities 2000-01 to 2012-13, Indexed to 2000-01

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Once you account for the big increase in student numbers, the picture looks a little bit different.  At the “top” universities, real per-student income is up 20% since 2000, but about even since the start of the financial crisis; universities as a whole are up about 8% since 2000, but down by nearly 10% since the start of the financial crisis.

This tells us a couple of things.  First, Canadians have put a ton of money, both collectively and as individuals, into higher education over the past 15 years.  Anyone who says we under-invest in higher education deserves hours of ridicule.  But second, it’s also indicative of just how much Canadian universities – including the big prestigious ones – have grown over the past decade.  Figure 3 provides a quick look at changes in total enrolment at those top universities.

Figure 3: Changes in enrolments at highly-ranked Canadian universities, 2000-2001 to 2012-13, indexed to 2000-2001

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In China, the top 40 or so universities were told not to grow during the country’s massive expansion of access, because they thought it would affect quality.  US private universities have mostly kept enrolment growth quite minimal.  But chez nous, McGill’s increase – the most modest of the bunch – is 30%.  Toronto’s increase is 65%, and McMaster’s is a mind-boggling 80%.

Michael Crow, the iconoclastic President of Arizona State University, often says that where American research universities get it wrong is in not growing more, and offering more spaces to more students – especially disadvantaged students.  Well, Canadian universities, even our research universities, have been doing exactly that.  What we’ve bought with our money is not just access, and not just excellence, but accessible excellence.

That’s pretty impressive. We might consider tooting our own horn a bit for things like that.

October 15

The Most Horrifying Book of the Year

One of the most famous studies on higher education and opportunity was published a little over fifteen years ago by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale.  Using something called the College and Beyond Survey, they followed over 6,000 students who had been accepted to American universities in 1976, and then looked at their outcomes almost twenty years later, in 1995.  The key finding was that holding SATs constant, school selectivity didn’t matter much.  The important thing wasn’t attending Harvard, it was having the marks to get into Harvard (for whites, at least – for black students, accessing the networks available to selective school alumni did have a positive effect on education).

As selective universities became even more selective during the early 2000s, and their average student’s socio-economic background drifted upwards, this study was comforting: the rich were just wasting their money on Ivies, and the poorer but talented who were excluded from those schools would end up doing just as well, even if they went elsewhere.  Except: I’ve never met an American parent who actually believed the study.  Sure, they’d say, but things have changed since the mid-70s.  Networks matter more, and by God the one thing you get at an Ivy League school is a network.

A book came out this past spring that explains why they’re right and Kruger and Dale are, if not wrong, then at least out of date.  It’s called Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs by Lauren Rivera, a professor at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.   It follows the graduate recruiting activities of a number of unnamed banking and consulting firms – the tiny fraction of companies that give 22 year-olds jobs that pay roughly six figures in the first year – across a number of Ivy League schools. And it will horrify you, and make you profoundly glad you don’t live in the United States.

The first couple of chapters are pretty mind-blowing.  The descriptions of how these major banks and consulting companies are dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars – each – on recruiting activities on these Ivy League campuses are bad enough (there must be a lot of very good parties at these places). What is truly mind-blowing is that all of these organizations, filled with “masters of the universe” types, genuinely seem to think that whatever Harvard and Princeton admissions is doing, it must be absolutely, 100% right, because that’s effectively the only filter they have.  If you’re from a selective Ivy, these purveyors of elite jobs think “they must be smart and fast learners; let’s hire them”.  From a state school?  You don’t even get an interview.  What you have accomplished in your four years of higher education is irrelevant; it’s all about where you went to school.

Not only is this mindbogglingly stupid (and, to tell the truth, odd – surely one of these companies should have arbitraged this over-focus on a tiny minority, and gone big on flagship state university hiring?), but also it is infuriating in the extreme.  Read it, or at lest the first couple of chapters, which describe how firms filter by campus (it gets less interesting after that): if your blood doesn’t boil, you have no soul.

A last note: try reading this book next to Kevin Carey’s The End of College, or Ryan Craig’s College Disrupted.  Both Carey and Craig are of the opinion that one thing that will drive disruption in higher education is that companies are going to want the “best” employees. Eventually, they say, algorithms are going to come along and find those employees wherever they are, at which point the prestige value of a degree from a selective school will disappear quickly.

But reading Pedigree it becomes clear that what employers are usually looking for are people who remind them of themselves.  People they won’t mind hanging out with on a long night in the office.  People who will fit in.  And you don’t need an algorithm for that.  You just need an old boys’ club.

September 22

David Cameron, Pork, and World-Class Universities

I am going to assume that by now you have all heard about the… um… interesting news regarding British Prime Minister David Cameron, which was in yesterday’s papers.  If you haven’t, then take a quick look here.  Then come back.  Quickly.  Maybe have a shower first.

Ready?

OK, so, my first thought about this story is “I wonder what kind of day Oxford’s PR folk are going to have?”  Because, honestly, at most universities, the idea that some of your students – indeed, some of your most famous alumni – have at some time in the past been involved in on-campus porcine frottage would not be good news.  The press would want to know what the university knew about these very un-kosher sexual rituals, and when did it know find out?  Is it still going on?  Etc. etc.  And you’d have administrators running around campus worrying: what will this do to applications?  What will this do to fundraising?  Disaster!  How quickly can we close down these clubs?

(This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether or not the story is true.  I think there are some very good reasons to think it isn’t.  The source, Lord Ashdown, has a well-known grudge against Cameron.  And accusations of pig-fiddling are one of the oldest tricks in the political book.  In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thomson described how LBJ had, in his Texas days, told his campaign manager to accuse his opponent of carnal knowledge of sows.  His campaign manager objected, saying they couldn’t call him a pig-f***** because no one would believe it.  To which Johnson replied: “I know, but let’s make the sonofabitch deny it”.)

But no.  On this question yesterday, silence.  No blowback at all on Oxford.  And I can guarantee you that no one – no one – at Oxford thought for a moment about next year’s application figures.  The problem is that everyone knows that whatever else Oxford may be, it’s a playground for Britain’s ruling class.  And let’s face it, the ruling class in Britain are known to get up to some pretty sordid stuff.  So in the popular imagination, it’s already only a small step from membership in the Bullingdon club to what appears to be a barnyard version of the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut.  And not to single out Britain here: the same could more or less be said of Yale, with its various Skull and Bones-type societies.  And nobody (well, not many, anyway) think the worst of them.  Indeed, for a certain demographic, the presence of elite kinkiness probably increases an institution’s attractiveness.

But we can abstract from Oxford to say something more general about World-Class Universities, and it is this: being a world-class university means never having to worry about bad PR.  Alumni in a bestiality/necrophilia story? No problem!  Prestigious science faculty in bizarre twitter rant about how 14-year old Muslim children actually conspired to get themselves accused of bomb-making in order to get an invite to the White House?  It is but a laugh.  PR events that would swamp other institutions simply glide off World-Class universities’ backs.

Academic prestige matters.  Built up over enough time it can shield you from pretty much anything.  If you don’t think that’s a motivating factor in institutions’ prestige-seeking activities, you’re simply not paying attention.

September 02

Higher Education as a Positional Good

In policy circles, we talk a lot about whether education is a public or a private good (it’s both), and what the implications are for pricing.  But one thing we don’t talk enough about is the extent to which education is a positional good.  And that’s a problem because our decisions on this topic have serious implications for the way we fund higher education.

What’s a positional good?  It’s a good that derives part of its value from the fact it’s valuable, but not everybody has it.  It’s kind of like when a particular article of clothing becomes “cool” – if too many people wear it, it ceases to be cool.  Status goods are a zero-sum game – every time someone else gets something I have, its value to me decreases.

Now think about education.  If too many people get a Bachelor’s degree, its value as a signal of skill goes down, even if everyone’s still gaining the same set of skills.  Think about what that means: the consequence of education being a positional good is that as access to higher education increases, the value of a “plain” Bachelor’s degree decreases, and degree-holders have to find new ways to distinguish themselves.

One way to do this is to focus less on the credential and more on where it was obtained.  Thus, one common pattern in higher education is that as access increases, so too does stratification.  Harvard degrees, for instance, have increased significantly in prestige as access to education has improved. We haven’t seen much of this phenomenon, because – as Joseph Heath recently pointed out – in Canada our most prestigious institutions accommodate a pretty large proportion of our student body.  Combine McGill, Toronto, and UBC and you’ve got about 14% of the entire population (the equivalent for, say, Yale/Harvard/Princeton is about 0.1%).  Since our top institutions don’t confer (much) exclusivity, Canadians look for higher education distinction in the collection of additional degrees.  Hence the explosion in professional Master’s degrees and (to a lesser extent) PhDs.

What makes higher education so weird as a field of policy is that it’s pretty much the only type of status good that governments subsidize.  And that’s really quite weird when you think about it.  What idiot would try to promote universal access to something that, by definition, not everyone can have?

We justify subsidizing degrees because to some extent they do raise skills and productivity, which is good for everyone, not just the people who get the degrees.  But the fact is, when it comes to private returns, in the early career phase at least, what matters is the positional value of the degree.  And not everyone can get into Harvard, or into a PhD program.  If they could, those goods would lose all meaning.  Scarcity is what makes them valuable.

The cry of people who say that there are too many spots in higher education/ law school/ teacher training are really making an argument that there aren’t enough status goods to go around.  That’s in part the consequence of subsidizing education to improve access – you’re bound to get excess demand.

As they say in the computer business, that’s a feature, not a bug.

June 23

The Effects of Tuition Fees (Part 1)

For the last eighteen months or so, I’ve been working on a project with colleagues Dominic Orr and Johannes Wespel of the Deutsche Zentrum für Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsforschung (DZHW) for the European Commission, looking at the effects of changes in tuition fees and fee policies on institutions and students.  The Commission published the results on Friday, and I want to tell you a little bit about them – this week I’ll be telling you about the effects on institutions, and next week I’ll summarize the results with respect to students.

The first question we answered had to do with whether or not a rise in tuition ultimately benefits higher education institutions.  Critics of fees sometimes suggest that extra fees do not in fact result in institutions receiving more money, because governments simply pull a fast one on the public and withdraw public money from the system, thus leaving institutions no better off.  Our examination of nine case studies revealed there were certainly some occasions where this was the case – Canada in the mid-90s, Austria in 2001, and the UK in 2012 – but that in the majority of cases fee increases were accompanied by stable or increased government funding.  Moreover, in all the cases where there was an accompanying decrease in public funding, it was signalled well in advance by governments, and indeed the increase in fees was deliberately designed to be a replacement for public funds. We did not find a case where a government “pulled a fast one”.

The second question we asked was how universities reacted to the introduction of fees: did they suddenly start chasing money and becoming much more sensitive to the demands of students and donors?  The answer, by and large, was no, for three reasons.  First, tuition isn’t the only financial incentive on offer to institutions; particularly if they are already funded on a per-student basis, the introduction or increase of fees isn’t likely to change behaviour.  Second, institutions won’t go after fees in ways that they think will negatively affect their prestige.  In Germany for instance, many universities have considerable latitude to raise income via teaching through continuing-education-like programs, but effectively they don’t do this, because they believe that engaging in that sort of activity isn’t prestige-enhancing.  And third, institutions often delay altering their behaviour too much because they don’t believe government policy will “stick”.  In Germany, specifically, the feeling was that the introduction of fees was unlikely to last and so there was no point in getting too invested in attracting new students to take advantage of it.

In fact, although fees in public institutions are often touted as a way to make universities more flexible and more responsive to business, the labour force, etc., this never actually works in reality, because universities are saddled with enormous legacy costs (you can close a program, but you still have to pay the profs), and have a particular self-image that means  they closely-tied to traditional ways.  What does seem to work – at least to some degree – is to allow the emergence of new types of higher education institutions altogether.  In Poland, it was only the emergence of private universities that allowed the system to take on the explosion of demand in the 1990s.  In Finland, an entirely new type of higher education institution (ammattikorkeakoulu or “Polytechnics”) was developed to take care of applied education, and accounted for 80% of all enrolment growth since 1995.

Next week: the effects on students.  See you then.

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