Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Trends in PSE

March 03

Mega-Trends in International Higher Education – A Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 24

Four Mega-Trends in International Higher Education – Catch-up is Hard

One of the perpetual alleged threats to cross-border education is that universities in the developing world might someday rival those in the west. Once that happens, the theory goes, students won’t need to go abroad and the whole international student thing goes up in smoke. It’s not an implausible theory, but it underplays how difficult catching up actually is.

The most basic problem for universities in developing countries is paying staff. Those talented and fortunate enough to have a terminal degree (this is by no means a given at universities in many countries), are often quite mobile. Salaries not high enough at Kenyan universities? Move to Tanzania, where salaries are higher? Not high enough in Tanzania? Try South Africa. Horizons not big enough in Johannesburg? There’s always New Zealand. And so on, and so on. It’s not quite a global market – more a series of overlapping regional ones. But the point is that institutions have to pay vastly over the odds in order to keep staff.

The gaps in national pay scales are huge. In Tanzania, a full professor makes about $3000 (US) per month. That may not sound like much, but it’s about 65 times the average private sector wage. A top academic could double that by heading to South Africa, but even that is roughly six times the average private sector wage. Move to Canada or Australia and it doubles again, even though here wages of topic academics are roughly three times the average private sector wage. To put all that another way: it takes the Tanzanian state twenty times as much financial effort in relative terms in order to pay its academics a quarter of what they’d earn in the west. Now, sure, not all Tanzanian academics would make it in Western universities. Yet that’s still the price required to keep talent at home. Financially, just staying in place is a killer; moving up the quality ladder is beyond most countries’ resources.

Even where top talent can be retained either through significant salaries, major research funds or linguistic barriers, the fact is that institutional prestige isn’t just a function of talent. As my friend Jamil Salmi says, it’s the product of talent, resources, governance (a critical missing factor in too many countries) – and above all, time. Prestige is a stock, not a flow. It comes from decades of consistent growth and excellence. Even if a new university pops up with billions of dollars and a few celebrity professors – say, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia or Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan – that doesn’t mean it is instantly going to gain prestige.  In fact, to be more precise: it takes decades of having graduates with great careers before anyone will think an institution to be genuinely prestigious. And not many developing-world institutions can claim such things.

And in any case, prestige is a moving target. As I noted back here, the very nature of institutional prestige is changing, shifting from being a mainly research-based institution to a mainly economic-growth-catalysing institution. And as noted back here, it’s very difficult in many developing countries for universities t play such a role, first because they have few domestic technology-intensive businesses with whom to collaborate, and second because they rarely have either the academic culture or leadership to turn them in this new direction. There are a few – NUS in Singapore, KAIST and Pohang in Korea, some of the C9 in China – that can say this. Precious few others can.

What does that mean for international education?  Prestige – however you measure it – is a lagging indicator of economic growth, not a leading one. That means that even if economic catch-up of developing countries continues, it’s going to be a loooong time before the prestige of those countries’ universities matches those of those in developed countries. That doesn’t give developed-country universities a monopoly on international students by any means; south-south student mobility is an increasing percentage of all international student flows. But it does mean that quality/prestige will remain a source of competitive advantage for these institutions for many years – maybe even decades – to come.

February 17

Four Mega-trends in International Higher Education – Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 10

Four Megatrends in International Higher Education – Demographics

Last week I noted that one of the big factors in international education was the big increase in enrolments around the world, particularly in developing countries.  Part of that big increase had to do with a significant increase in the number of youth around the world who were of “normal” age for higher education – that is, between about 20 and 24.  Between 2000 and 2010, that age-cohort grew by almost 20%, from a little over 500 million to a little over 600 million.  Nearly all (95%) of that growth came from Asia and Africa.

Figure 1: Number of People Aged 20-24, by Continent, 2000 to 2030


But as figure 1 shows, 2010 was a peak year for the 20-24 age group.  Over the course of the 2010s, numbers globally will decline by 10%, and not reach 2010 levels again until 2030 (intriguingly, this is almost exactly true for Canada, as well).  A problem for international higher education?  Well, maybe.  Demography isn’t destiny.  But to get a bit more insight, let’s look at what’s happening to the demographics within each region.

In Europe, the numbers for the 20-24 year old group are falling drastically.  In Western Europe, the decline is relatively moderate and reflects a gradual drop in the birth rate which has been going on for about fifty years.  In Eastern Europe, the fall is more precipitous, a reflection the fall in the birth rate during the occasionally catastrophic years of the switch from socialism to capitalism.  In Russia, youth numbers are set to drop by – ready for this? – fifty per cent (or six million people) between 2010 and 2020.

Figure 2: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Europe, 2000 to 2030


In East Asia, the story of the first ten years of the century was the huge increase in youth numbers in China (yes, the one-child rule was in effect, but the previous generation was so large that raw numbers continued to increase anyway).  But once we reach 2010, the process reverses itself.  China’s youth cohort drops by 40% between 2010 and 2020. Similarly, Vietnam’s drops by 20%, as does Japan’s (which additionally lost another 20% between 2000 and 2010).  Of the countries in the region, only Indonesia is still seeing some gentle growth.

Figure 3:  Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in East Asia, 2000 to 2030


The story changes as we head west in Asia.  India will continue to see rises – albeit small ones – in the number of youth through to 2030 at least.  Pakistan will see an increase of 50%, albeit from a much smaller base.  Numbers in Bangladesh will rise fractionally, while those in Turkey will stay constant.  Iran, however, is heading in the other direction; there, because of the precipitous fall in the birth rate in the 1990s, youth numbers will fall by 40% between 2010 and 2020 (i.e. on a similar scale to China) before recovering slightly by 2030.

Figure 4: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Southern & Western Asia, 2000 to 2030


I’m going to skip the Americas, because numbers there stay pretty constant over the whole period and the graphs therefore look pretty boring (just a bunch of lines as flat as a Keanu Reeves performance).  But here comes Africa, where youth numbers are expanding relentlessly.

Figure 5: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Africa, 2000 to 2030


The six countries portrayed here – Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania – make up just 40% of the continent’s population, but they are quite representative of the continent as a whole.  By 2030, there will be more 20-24 year-olds in Nigeria than there are in North America, and growth in numbers in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia (as well as Nigeria) between 2015 and 2030 will exceed 50%.  The outliers here are South Africa, where youth cohort numbers are going to stay more or less constant, and Egypt, where the numbers drop in the 2010s before starting to grow again in the 2020s.

So what can we learn from all this?  Well, what it means is that overall, youth numbers are shifting from richer and middle-income countries to poorer ones.  While many developed countries like the US, France, Canada and the UK are more or less holding their numbers constant (or, more often, showing a dip in the 2010s and a subsequent rise in the 2020s), we are seeing big, permanent drops in numbers in places like Russia, Iran, China and Vietnam and big increases in places like Nigeria, Pakistan and Kenya.

Ceteris paribus, this is bad news for international student flows because on average, the potential client base is going to be coming from poorer countries.  But keep in mind two things: first, international education is by and large the preserve of the top five percent of the income strata anyway, so national average income may not be that big a deal.  Second, while the size of the base populations may be changing, what really matters for total numbers is the fraction of the total population which chooses to study abroad.  China is a good example here: as our data shows, the youth population is falling drastically but international student numbers are up because an increasing proportion of students are choosing to study abroad.

Bottom line: the world youth population is now more or less stable, after decades of growth.  For international education to continue to grow means finding ways to convince people further down the income strata that study abroad is a good investment.

February 03

Four Megatrends in International Higher Education: Massification

A few months ago I was asked to give a presentation about my thoughts on the “big trends” affecting international education. I thought it might be worth setting some of these thoughts to paper (so to speak), and so, every Friday for the next few weeks I’ll be looking one major trend in internationalization, and exploring its impact on Canadian PSE.

The first and most important mega-trend is the fact that all over the world, participation in higher education is going through the roof. Mostly, that’s due to growth in Asia which now hosts 56% of the world’s students, but substantial growth has been the norm around the world since 2000.  In Asia, student numbers have nearly tripled in that period (up 184%), but they also more than doubled (albeit from lower bases) in Latin America (123%) and Africa (114%), and even in North America numbers increased by 50%. Only in Europe, where several major countries have begun seeing real drops in enrolment thanks to changing demographics (most notably the Russian Federation), has the enrolment gain been small – a mere 20%.

Tertiary Enrolments by Continent, 1999-2014:


Source: Unesco Institute of Statistics

Now, what does this have to do with the future of international higher education?  Well, back in the day, international students were seen as “overflow” – that is, students forced abroad because there were not enough educational opportunities in their own countries. Therefore, many people thought that the massification of higher education in Asia (and particularly China) would over the long run mean a decrease in internationalization because they would have more options to choose from at home.

Clearly the last decade and a half has put that idea to bed. Global enrolments have shot up, but international enrolments have risen even faster. But as all these national systems of higher education are undergoing massification, they are also undergoing stratification. That is to say: as higher education systems get larger, the positional advantage obtained simply from attending higher education declines, and the positional advantage to attending a specific, prestigious institution rises. And while higher education places are rising quickly around the world, the number of spaces in prestigious institutions is staying relatively steady in most countries (India, which is expanding its IIT system, is a partial exception). Take China for example; over the last 20 years, the number of new undergraduate students being admitted to Chinese universities has increased from about one and a half million to six million per year. In that same time, the intake of the country’s nine most prestigious universities  (the so-called “C-9”) has increased barely at all (it currently stands at something like 50,000 per year).

Now if you’re a student in a country where there’s a very tight bottleneck at the top of the prestige ladder, what do you do if you don’t quite make it to the top? Do you settle for a second-best university in your own country?  Or do you look for a second-best university in another country, preferably one where people speak English, and preferably one which has a little bit of cachet of its own? Assuming money is not a barrier (though it often is) the answer is a no-brainer: go abroad.

So when we look ahead to the future, as we think about what might affect student flows around the world, what we need to watch is not the rise of university or college places in places like China and India, but rather the ratio of prestige spaces to total spaces. As long as that ratio keeps falling – and there’s no evidence at the moment that this process will reverse itself anytime soon – expect the demand for international education to remain high.

September 08

Trends in Canadian University Finance

New income and expenditure data on Canadian universities came out over the summer courtesy of StatsCan and our friends over at the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO), so today it’s time to check in on what the latest financial trends.

In 2014-15, income at Canadian Universities was, overall, a record 35.5 Billion dollars (just above 2% of GDP, if you’re counting).  That’s up 1% in real terms over the previous year and up 5% on five years ago (2009-10).  But the composition of that income is changing.  Total government income is down 2% in real terms from last year and down 8% from 2009-10 (the latter being somewhat exaggerated because the base year included a lot of money from the 2009 budget stimulus via the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP).  Income from student fees, on the other hand, was up 5% on the previous year and 32% up from 2009-10, again taking inflation into account.  That doesn’t mean that fee levels increased that much; this is aggregate income so part (maybe even most) of this change comes from changes in domestic and (more pertinently) international enrollment.

Figure 1: Change in Real Income by Source, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10


Let’s turn to a look at expenditures by type.  Salary mass for academic staff actually fell slightly last year after inflation, but over five years the overall salary budget for academics is up by 10%, after inflation. Again, this isn’t what’s happening to average salaries, it’s what’s happening to aggregate salaries, so it’s partially a function of average and partially a function of staff numbers.  For non-academic salaries, it’s an 11% increase over five years.  And yes, you’re reading that right: labour costs have risen 10% while income has risen only 5%.  Again, that’s exaggerated a bit by fluctuations in incoming funds for capital expenditures, but it’s probably not sustainable in the long term.  Because other elements of the budget are increasing quickly too: for instance, scholarship expenditures rose by 21% over that period to stand at over $1.87 billion.

 Figure 2: Change in Real Expenditures by Type, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10


Finally, let’s take a look at expenditures by function within the operating budget.  Operating budgets as a whole are actually up quite a bit – 14% (this is partially offset by falls in the capital and research budgets).  Here’s how the money gets used:

 Figure 3 – Division of Canadian Universities’ Operating Budgets by Expenditure Function, 2014-15


As you’d expect and hope, the lion’s share (57%) of the operating budget goes to instruction and non-sponsored research.  Most of the rest goes on three categories: administration, student services, and physical plant.  Figure 4 shows how growth in each of these areas has differed.

Figure 4: Change in Real Expenditures by Function, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10


If you look at the “big four” spending areas, instructional and admin costs rose at roughly the same rate over fiver years (14% vs. 15%), while student services rose more quickly (21%) and physical plant less so (7%, with a 4% drop in the last year).  Non-credit instruction is up very strongly for reasons I cannot quite fathom.  But look at computing costs (up 31%) and “External Relations” (which includes Government Relations, alumni relations/fundraising and other marketing costs – up 27%).

In sum: i) government funding is down in real dollars but student income has replaced that income and more besides, so that institutional budgets are still increasing at inflation +1% per year; ii) compensation budgets (academic and non-academic alike) are rising faster than income, which is a problem for the medium-term and iii) there are a lot of small-ish budget items that are growing much more quickly than salaries (scholarships, computing, student services etc.) but given that compensation is 60% of the total budget, that’s still where the majority of the restraint needs to happen.

June 06

Governance, Stress-Tests, and Preparing for the Worst

It’s the little things that worry me.  The slowdown in China.  The continuing failure of the Euro-zone to grow.  The fact that the ratio of the US Stock Market Cap to GDP is approaching the levels seen right before the crashes of 2001 and 2008.  Our economy might muddle through, or it might not.

Now add on to economic uncertainty the clear evidence that governments are showing decreasing enthusiasm about supporting higher education – nationally, there’s been a real decline in provincial higher ed funding over the past four years to the tune of about three percent.  Better than some sectors, certainly, but also very problematic, given that our universities essentially seize up if their budgets don’t grow at least 3.5% per year.  Oh, and throw in the clear reluctance of most governments to let tuition rise to compensate for any funding cuts.

Given all this, I’d say there’s a reasonable chance that universities in more than one province are heading for budget cuts on the order of 10% or so.  It’s likeliest in Ontario, but it could happen pretty much anywhere.

Is anyone ready for that?  Does anyone have a plan in their back-pocket that would help them get through that kind of restructuring.

I can hear all of you rolling your eyes.  Of course not – who does that?

Well, almost everyone, really.  Any business worth its salt has some pretty clear contingency plans if revenue drops.  Colleges don’t have exact contingency plans per se, but they pretty much all measure break-even points on a per-program basis; if required to cut, they would be able to produce plans very quickly.

But universities?  It is to laugh.  They’ll plan for growth until the cows come.  But plans to shrink?  Never.

Yet, it’s not as though they can claim blindness to the danger.  It’s not as though universities don’t remember the 1990s, when double-digit cuts occurred.  It’s not as though cuts on a limited scale aren’t already happening.  Despite the dangers, universities continue to merrily sign agreements with faculty that commit them to large expenditure increases in the future (Hey!  U of Ottawa!  Yeah, I’m looking at you!) instead of focussing on contingency plans.

I can sort of understand the reluctance of administrators to take this step, given the predictable faculty backlash.  What’s more puzzling is the absence of any pressure on institutions from their Boards of Governors on this score.  Our whole system of university governance is based on spheres of competence: academics run academic affairs through Senate, while Boards – supposedly filled with men and women with a modicum of business nous – are supposed to take care of the money.  And yet, more often than not, “taking care of the money” means dong fundraising or small-ball stuff like advising on endowment strategies.  It doesn’t seem to involve asking hard questions about the medium-to-long term solvency or stress-testing institutions to see how they’d fare if things go south.

Yet it should.  The risks institutions face are getting bigger each year.  A crash may not happen; but if it does, we’d all be better off if our responses were based on thoughtful long-term plans rather than the usual beheaded chicken routine that universities seem to prefer.  Boards of Governors are the ones best-placed to make it happen.  They need to step up and do so.

May 28


Once upon a time, we thought that to indulge in serious thought, scholars needed to be protected from the hurly-burly of commerce and politics.  That’s why an awful lot of American campuses were built out in the middle of nowhere (eg. Dartmouth, Princeton, U Illinois, U Indiana, U Virginia, U Washington), and why many of the medieval universities of Europe have walls – both were strategies to keep out the riff-raff.

Nowadays, of course, we think exactly the opposite.  Urban universities and colleges are hip and cool.  They’re in the middle of booming cities, interacting with businesses, and collaborating to fix social problems.  And though one might think this development is just a bunch of Richard Florida-esque hipsterdom (Cities! Knowledge! Vague connection between the two!), in fact, it has to do with a much larger and more fundamental change in the nature of universities themselves.  As far as universities’ goals and self-image is concerned, there’s a new Sheriff in town.  And its name is “permeability”.

As far as teaching and learning goes, some types of permeability are actually already ingrained into North American universities in ways that European universities are only starting to catch on to.  You can be permeable in terms of credits – making institutions welcoming to students who already have collected credit elsewhere. You can be permeable in terms of time – allowing students to start and stop their programs regardless of age or the length of time it takes to complete a set of credits (this may sound mundane to people in the Anglosphere – in most of the rest of the world, however, this kind of stud is either in its infancy or might as well be science fiction).

The most dynamic institutions in the world are the ones where it’s hardest to define where an institution ends and where other organizations begin.  The schools with the most frenetic pace of scientific innovation aren’t the ones fussing about patents and licensing, they’re the ones with the open-ended innovation agreements with business, where issues of IP rights don’t get in the way of the main goal, which is to develop productive, ongoing relationships. The schools with the most interesting students aren’t necessarily the ones with the traditional credit-based paths to completion, but rather the ones who ensure a mix of academic and applied experiences, like through Waterloo’s co-op program.  The most interesting undergraduate research projects aren’t the ones assigned by professors, but rather are the applied-research projects that come from local businesses, and are proliferating in place like Ryerson and Canada’s Polytechnics.

Permeability is less about what institutions do than it is a state of mind.  It is about openness, not just to the outside world, but also to new ways of achieving things.  It is about thinking of universities as being embedded in a vast variety of networks, rather than being a hub with various spokes (it can be a hub for some things – just not all of them).  And it’s about empowering students and professors to develop and explore their own networks, rather than assume these will be organized by the institution itself.

We’ve essentially come full-circle here.  It’s the isolated universities who wanted to function as “cities upon a hill” who look out-of-touch these days.  The most dynamic ones, far from shutting themselves off, are doing their best to turn themselves inside out, and open up as many of their functions as possible to contact and integration with commerce and society.

Permeable Universities are the model for the 21st Century.  Working out how to help them emerge is the main task of higher education policy for the coming decade.

September 19

Cultural Determinants of Data Acquisition Costs

I saw a fascinating piece in the New York Times awhile back.  It was about a trend at American universities, asking applicants if they were gay or not.  Apparently, these institutions believe that by asking students this question, they are sending a message that they are a gay-positive environment.


Americans think that transparency about identity is the path to utopia.  Enrolment statistics by race?  They’ve got them.  Indeed, they are required to keep such statistics, because of a clutch of laws designed to monitor whether or not Blacks (and, to a lesser extent, Latinos and America Indians) are being discriminated against.

In Canada, the rule of thumb is simple: on forms used for administrative purposes, you can’t compel anyone to reveal data about identity, beyond what is strictly necessary to achieve the purpose for which the information is being collected.  So, on applications to universities and colleges, asking people’s names and addresses is about as far as you can go (provinces have different standards on whether you can ask gender – some say you can’t).  Asking about ethnicity, or aboriginal status?  Totally verboten.  Whereas in the US it’s mandatory.

What that means is that, in Canada, acquiring any data about students – other than raw numbers – requires voluntary surveys.  And those can get expensive: done centrally through StatsCan (and its levels of quality standards) they cost millions; even if you just get a decent-sized consortium together to do something, it will run into hundreds of thousands once you count everyone’s labour costs.  You can get it down into the tens of thousands if you go with an electronic survey, but then there are response bias issues (you can correct for them, but it requires someone to have already done a decent survey to begin with – and with the loss of the census long form, it’s not clear that we have such a survey).

Of course, even Canada is at least somewhat ahead of, say, France.  There, the local conception of nationalism means that state agencies are forbidden from classifying citizens as anything other than citizens.  Blanc, beur, noir: they’re all French according to the government, and its socially unacceptable to classify them as anything else.  A morally attractive stance, perhaps, but what it means is that the French have real trouble measuring social inequality in ways that matter.

All of this is simply to say, if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t have statistics on ethnicity the way the Americans do, it’s this: they assume racial bias exists and keep stats to measure it.  We assume that racial bias exists, and so try to mask parts of individuals’ identities to prevent it.

May 16

Think Big?

With all the chat recently about reducing unit costs through ever-larger instructional units (e.g. MOOCs), it occurred to me that the world already has a lot of models for this.  They just aren’t in the developed world.

University World News recently carried a very interesting article regarding a new higher education master plan in Nigeria.  One of the plan’s key elements is to construct a half-dozen “mega-universities” – each with 100-150,000 students – to soak up the rising demand for higher education.  On the one hand, this plan is self-evidently mad: large Nigerian universities are already a violent and lawless mess, plagued with cults such as the Black Axe and the Supreme Vikings (I wrote about them a couple of years ago: here); surely these new, even larger campuses will face even bigger gang problems.  On the other hand, you can sort of see where Nigeria’s coming from on this.  Thanks to some truly staggering levels of corruption, the ability of Nigeria to use public funds to meet demand for higher education is quite small – currently just $1.4 billion to cover expenses at 33 federal universities.  So the solution is simple – go big, and keep unit costs low.  Just like MOOCs.

Actually, the way access has been increased in much of the developing world is through strategies like this.  The world’s largest universities are Open Universities – Indira Gandhi in India (3.5 million), and Anadolu in Turkey (2 million).   The largest residential schools are ones with multiple constituent campuses.  The reigning world champion here is Islamic Azad University in Iran – a private school with 350 locations, 1.5 million students, and a very significant endowment of contested legality (I don’t buy the $200 billion number, but it’s substantial nonetheless).

What about single-campus institutions?  On the Indian subcontinent, there are a handful (e.g. Delhi, Pune) which boast enrolments of 400K plus, but most of those students are not residential – rather, they study at a college somewhere, and simply take the Delhi or Pune exams.  For really big schools, you need to go to places like the University of Buenos Aires (300K plus) or UNAM in Mexico City (250K plus).  The University of Cairo, at about 150K, is the biggest in Africa; it’s also generally considered the continent’s best school outside of South Africa, which may explain Nigeria’s attraction to the model.

William Gibson once said that the future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.  So it is.   These mega-institutions can provide some lessons about the perils and promises of uber-massification through mega-universities.  We probably shouldn’t ignore them just because they’re happening offline and in poor countries.

Page 1 of 212