Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Systems

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


*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


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


*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


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.

September 05

Better Know a Higher Ed System: New Zealand

We don’t hear much up here about New Zealand higher education, mainly because the country’s tiny, and literally located at the end of the earth.  But that’s a pity, because it’s an interesting system with a lot to like about it.

The country’s university system is pretty ordinary: eight universities, three of which were founded in the 19th century, and the rest founded after WWII. All of them are pretty much based on English lines, with just one – Auckland – generally considered to be “world-class”.  Rather, what makes New Zealand an interesting higher education system is what happens outside the universities.

About 30 years ago, New Zealand came close to bankruptcy; in response, the government moved to sharply liberalize the economy.  In education, this meant eliminating established educational monopolies, and widening the ability to provide education: anyone who wanted to deliver a degree or a diploma could do so, provided they could meet an independent quality standard.  Polytechnics – equivalent to our colleges – started offering degrees (in the process becoming an inspiration to our own colleges, some of whom proceeded to push for their own degree-granting status, and labelled themselves “polytechnics”), and hundreds of private providers started offering diplomas.  Despite this liberalization, the system is still able to enforce a qualifications framework, which allows people to stack lower-level qualifications towards higher-level ones – and that’s down to having a serious high-quality regulator in the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

Another major system feature are the “wānangas”.  The term is a Maori word indicating traditional knowledge, but in practice the term has come to mean “Maori polytechnic” (the country’s universities all use the term “Whare Wānanga” – meaning “place of learning” – to translate their names into Maori).  There are three of these, two of which are tiny (less than 500 students), and one of which is freaking massive (38,000 today, down from a peak of 65,000 ten years ago). I’ll tell you the story of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa another time, because it deserves its own blog post.  But for the moment just keep in mind that in New Zealand, wānangas are considered the fourth “pillar” of higher education (along with universities, polytechnics, and privates), and that these institutions, entirely run by Maori, have had an enormously positive impact on Maori educational attainment rates (see this previous blog for stats on that).

A last point to note about NZ is its international strategy.  Like our government, New Zealand’s aims in this area are pretty mercantilist: students in = money in = good.  It could not possibly care less about outward mobility or other touchy-feely stuff.  What distinguishes their strategy from ours, however, is that theirs is smart.  Brilliant, actually.  Take a couple of minutes to compare Canada’s laughably thin and one-dimensional policy with Education New Zealand’s unbelievably detailed set of strategies, goals, and tactics laid out not just for the country as a whole, but for each of six key sub-sectors: universities, colleges, privates, primary/secondary schools, English language sector, and educational service/product providers.  That, my friends, is a strategy.  Now ask yourself: why we can’t produce something that good?

In short, there’s a lot Canadians could learn from New Zealand – if only we paid more attention.

February 28

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Senegal

Hi all.  I’ve been in Dakar, Senegal this past week, developing a student program here.  Here’s a quick snapshot of the place:

Senegal is home to francophone Africa’s oldest university, l’Universite Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), sometimes known simply as the University of Dakar.  It’s one of the few institutions on the continent that predates independence.  For a very long time, it was the country’s only university – francophone African countries were slower to expand higher education opportunities than anglophone, for reasons I’ll get into shortly – and, in fact, it still accounts for about 90% of enrolments in the public system, and essentially 100% of its prestige programs.

As in most of Africa, Senegal started allowing private universities to operate in the early 1990s.  For a long time, these were few and small.  But then, in the past decade, their numbers shot up, from about 30 in 2000 to around 110 in 2010.  A handful of these – mostly management schools – had the scale to offer quality education, but with an average enrolment of 200 students, the sector as a whole struggles.

The reason francophone Africa was so slow to expand higher education is that national governments couldn’t afford it.  That’s not just because they were poor, but also because the prevailing model involved zero tuition, bursaries for (nearly) all, plus free/subsidized meals and accommodations.  The only way to keep costs down was to slam tight the lid on student numbers.  That was workable until the 80s baby boom started hitting universities fifteen years ago (hence the surge in private university numbers).  It made even less sense once the effects of universal primary and universal secondary education began to be felt, and the number of university-eligible students grew.

At this point, some bright light in government decided that the way to deal with this problem was to guarantee university education to everyone with a baccalauréat (the French kind, the one you get after high school).  Financially, this made so little sense that a series of hasty moves were made: tuition fees were implemented – with undergraduates now asked to pay $60/year, master’s students $120, and doctoral students $180.  (For comparison, the privates tend to charge between $1,750 and $2,250/year in fees.)  This provoked a couple of weeks of riots and some burned mini-buses, but the government held firm, and eventually the students paid up and went back to class – although this turned out to be a problem because, with the bacc guarantee, there were now far too many students.  UCAD, bursting at the seams, could accept only about 70% of the required students.

This led the Senegalese government to an innovative policy solution: namely, taking 6600 first year students, and paying the better private schools to educate them.  In the short-term, this works for everyone: UCAD gets some relief in student numbers, privates get some extra money, and government gets to keep its promise.  But with first year student numbers projected to increase by 10-15% per year as far as the eye can see, it’s at best a temporary solution.

The Senegalese government has finally discovered that la gratuité n’est pas rentable.  Future expansion is going to mean more students paying more money, in both the public and private sectors.  Given its status as a regional leader in higher education, it could herald the start of major change in higher education policy right across francophone Africa.

October 25

Canada’s Bologna Challenge

It may not be obvious why Canada needs to think much about Bologna – we already have a common higher education area, right? – but the fact is that we do. Partly, it’s a matter of long-term market-protection; as time goes on and elements of the Bologna approach becomes more common around the world (experiments with Bologna-like structures are occurring on more or less every continent, and even in the United States), institutions wishing to attract foreign students may eventually have trouble doing so if they aren’t Bologna-compliant. But there are some short-term reasons to think about it, too – mostly because of some trade negotiations you may only barely have heard about.

A couple of years ago, Canada began negotiating the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement, or CETA. In addition to its usual strategy of not saying anything in public ever about anything, the Harper government has been extra shtum about CETA, presumably to try to keep the Maude Barlow brigade at bay. But in many ways, this is a much more far-reaching agreement any of the previous FTAs with the U.S., Mexico or whoever because they are actually talking seriously about allowing the free movement of labour.

This, as Joe Biden didn’t quite say, is a big freakin’ deal – in many ways much more far-reaching than the 1988 FTA. Europeans would be able to work in Canada visa-free as Canadians would be able to work anywhere in the E.U., visa-free. But the problem is that the right to free movement of labour doesn’t, as the Europeans themselves discovered, guarantee actual mobility. In particular, it’s tough for skilled labour to move unless employers can figure out what their credentials are worth. That is what kick-started the Bologna process in the first place – the realization that the absence of commonly understood and accepted credentials were a major barrier to mobility.

So, though CETA promises more mobility, it will be a lot more theoretical than real if our degrees aren’t Bologna-compliant. We can’t actually join Bologna (you have to be a member of the Council of Europe), but if at least we can make our systems parallel to Bologna in terms of quality assurance, degree supplements and credit transfer arrangements then we might at least get some of the purported benefits of this agreement.

That’s going to be a tall order. As we noted yesterday, Canada’s not even vaguely set up to deal with the issues Bologna throws up. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the whole issue of Bologna compliance is going to get a lot more political attention here at home just as soon as the ink dries on this agreement. Get ready.

October 24

Bologna – The Real Lessons

Europe’s Bologna Process may be winding down, but that’s not to say it was a failure. In fact, one could argue that one of the reasons Bologna is not quite so front-and-centre as it used to be is that it did its job spectacularly well and that barriers to both educational and labour market mobility have fallen significantly in the last decade.

There are some lessons for Canada here. Briefly, these are:

1) Improving Mobility Means Paying Attention to Quality. This is a fairly simple concept. Credits are a form of currency. If I’m going to take my credits from institution A to institution B, the folks at B are going to need some kind of exchange rate to make that work. No reliable exchange rate, no exchange. The problem in Canada is that we find actual discussions about quality, level and intensity to be, for lack of a better word, icky. Heck, we might have to say things out loud that would be upsetting to certain groups of institutions or students. For example – why do some Ontario universities require 24 hours of contact hours to be deserving of a half-credit while others requires 39? There may well be reasons to consider them equivalent, but unless they are made explicit, it’s hard to imagine how real, universal exchange rates are possible.

2) Improving Mobility Means More External Assessment. At the end of the day, any currency is based on trust. For one institution to accept credits from another requires an institution to believe that the other has credibility. Within small groups of institutions, that works. But it’s ludicrous to think that anyone at (say) Memorial really has a sense of how (say) Kwantlen is handling the transition from uolytechnic to university and hence whether credits from the latter are equivalent to their own. The role of external quality agencies is precisely to provide a neutral “seal of approval.” No seal of approval, no trust, no mobility. Simple as that.

3) Improving Quality and Harmonizing Outcomes Means More Inclusive Policy-Making. Possibly the most interesting thing about Bologna is that it wasn’t exclusively or even primarily an inter-governmental process. To do a Bologna means building a table that includes not just governments, but professional bodies, universities and students as well; it also means moving ahead with less than full consensus when necessary to preserve forward momentum. In Canada no mechanism exists to call these parties together, and important bodies like CMEC and AUCC get queasy without consensus.

Doing a Bologna in Canada would thus require overcoming some deep-set habits. Yet, it’s something we may need to do, and soon. More tomorrow.

October 23

Does Bologna Still Have a Pulse?

For the last decade or so, pretty much all North Americans have heard about European higher education is “The Bologna Process.” In fact, Bologna has become a sort of Rorschach test for higher education types in the rest of the world. Canadians tend to see it through the prism of our own federal-provincial relations issues. For the most part, die-hard centralists like using it as a rhetorical drum to beat for more (e.g., “Europe is creating a common higher education area and we can’t even get our provinces to submit data to Statscan”). This is, of course, a more or less complete misunderstanding both of what Bologna was trying to achieve (Canada already has a common higher education area) and how it was trying to achieve it (Bologna is definitely not a top-down affair).

Part of the problem for outsiders is that Bologna isn’t really one thing. There’s “formal” Bologna, by which I mean the original objectives of the Bologna signatories (i.e., creating a common European higher education area, including a three-cycle system of – roughly – three years, two years and three years respectively; a European credit transfer system; and a common diploma supplement designed to explain the content of a degree). Then there’s “informal” Bologna, by which I mean “all the other cool stuff happening in Europe.” Of this there is a fair bit, including a Copenhagen Process for vocational education, the Tuning Process for harmonizing educational outcomes at the subject-level and the various initiatives which come out of the biannual meetings, such as providing higher education with a social dimension, the student-centred learning “mission”, etc., etc.

Europeans involved with the Bologna process often portray all this activity as one big intiative, which is why outsiders – who don’t follow the minutiae of the various communiques and conferences – tend not to distinguish between “formal” and “informal” Bolognas. But there is a big difference. “Narrow” Bologna actually ended a few years ago, just as soon as all the national governments finished passing the various laws required to make it happen. “Broad” Bologna is still going on, but the engagement of governments in the process has diminished enormously. In fact, it’s mainly pushed along by a group of education policy nerds who are bright, delightful and engaging, but whose agendas – while often being deeply cool – are simply ever less central to national education bureaucrats’ plans. Its main use now is as a series of networks which help funnel good management practice across the continent from (more or less) north and west to (more or less) east and south.

I wouldn’t say Bologna’s dead – but it’s not as alive as it used to be, either.

October 18

Korean Lessons

I’m in Seoul this week, studying some aspects of the Republic of Korea’s system of lifelong learning (picture me Gangnam-dancing if you must). But the country’s overall system of higher education is so flat-out amazing, I thought it would be worth a post or two.

How amazing is it, you ask? Well, they kick our behinds in terms of access and success – 90% of their high school graduates attend university or “junior college” right after high school and the graduation rate is very high. They went from having an essentially vestigial system of higher education in 1960 (100,000 students) to a universal system (3 million students) in a little more than 40 years. And while they focused initially on quantity, they’ve done a heck of a job on quality in recent years as well: Seoul National University (SNU) is one of only a handful of universities anywhere to have been founded after World War II and achieved true global status for academic excellence, particularly in engineering.

All this isn’t due to some massive dumping of public money into the system, either. In fact, no one in the OECD spends less public money on higher education than Korea (about 0.43% of GDP). They manage this by having a massive system of privately-owned and financed higher education institutions (rather like Japan) which educate about two-thirds of all students and which are nearly entirely financed by tuition. But hold on there, free-market types – as in Japan, private universities are so tightly regulated that in many respects they have less autonomy than do most public ones in our neck of the woods (though government oversight has been very gradually receding over time).

Public universities receive government assistance, but even here tuition is substantial – slightly higher than in Canada. More to the point, perhaps, Korea’s government is at the forefront of tying public money to specific activities. Virtually all of the new public money put into the system since about 1998 has gone into targeted programs like the World-Class Universities program (hiring foreign faculty), Brain Korea 21 (spending bazillions of won on graduate students) and the like.

Even more so than us, they’re facing the effects of a declining youth population on university enrolments and finances. Their solution? International students! They’ve gone from essentially zero to 90,000 in the last decade, mostly from China and Mongolia. Intriguingly, they don’t treat them as cash cows the way we do. In Korea, international students are actually charged slightly less than domestic students, with government top-ups covering the difference. Why? Basically, government sees some “soft power” benefits to having more international students.

There are lessons for Canada here, if we care to look.