Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: United Kingdom

July 10

England has lost its damn mind over tuition fees

Ok, I said I wouldn’t write over the summer unless someone of importance said something titanically stupid.  Andrew Adonis, architect of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s education policies crossed that line on Friday with a – yes – titanically stupid column about tuition fees, so here I am.

First, some background.  Prior to 1998, the UK had a free tuition system.  From 1998 to 2006 it had a system of varying tuition fees – £1,000 if your family made over £30,000 per year, and then a sliding scale down to zero if family income fell below £20,000.  From 2006 to 2012, it was a flat £3,000 (rising with inflation) accompanied by the (re)-introduction of means-based grants for living costs.  Loans were available to all to cover fees, meaning no one need pay a cent up-front (“free at the point of delivery” in the UK parlance), and said loans were recovered via the tax system as in Australia and New Zealand.  Required repayment rates were a modest 9% of income above the threshold, which started at £10K in 1998 and rose to £15K in 2006.  Loans not repaid within a given time frame were to be forgiven.

(If you’re trying to work out what those numbers mean in Canadian dollars, for most of the past 15 years PPP equivalent has been pretty close to £1 =C$1.70, so just multiply everything in this piece by 1.7 and you’ve got it).

Shortly after the 2006 went into effect, the bottom fell out of financial markets, and one of the worst-hit countries was the UK.  Anticipating that major reductions in public spending were going to be necessary, then-PM Gordon Brown convened a commission to look at university finances and tuition fees which, conveniently, would not report until after the 2010 election.  The resulting Browne (not the PM, another guy) Review became the basis for the post-election Tory-Liberal coalition government’s policy of i) reducing government funding to universities by over 40%, including a total elimination of per-student subsidies for teaching in the social sciences and humanities and ii) allowing universities to raise fees to up to an eye-watering £9,000 per year.

What this meant was that between loans for tuition and loans for living costs in in ludicrously-pricey London, “debt” for a three-year degree could quite easily end up at over £50,000.  But to “compensate”, loans were made more generous with the repayment threshold jumped from £15,000 to £21,000 while retaining the debt forgiveness policy.  In other words, the government increased student debt massively while simultaneously it harder to recover (see here for a comparison of repayment burdens in UK vs. other countries).

The results of this were predictable.  Though student “debts” rose enormously, these debts were in some sense purely nominal; most predictions showed that something like three-quarters of graduates would never repay the debts and hence the government would assume their balances.  What most students were signing on to was therefore not a loan but a marginal tax of 9% on income over £21,000 lasting 30 years; that is, a so-called graduate tax.  The problem was that no one knew in advance whether they were signing on for a graduate tax or a loan – that would only become apparent a decade or two into one’s working career.  Oh, and government would eventually end up picking up about half the total cost of loans.

Remarkably, this proved unpopular among students.  So much so that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish fees altogether – a move which while wiping away some obvious policy lunacy would also be a massive gift to the future wealthy – was widely credited with a big upswing in the youth vote which in turn was widely credited with denying Agent Teresa May a majority in last month’s election’s, despite the fact that Corbyn’s stance on Europe and Brexit is diametrically opposed to theirs.  And now that Corbyn no longer looks vulnerable to an internal coup, various Blairite Labour types are now busy re-writing the history of the last two decades to justify a 180 on a fees policy they either wrote or agreed with in spirit.

Which is where this Andrew Adonis article in last Friday’s Guardian comes in.  Adonis helped draft the ’98 and ’06 fee policy changes, and he would surely have agreed with the direction (if not the full extent) of the post-Browne Review changes.  Yet now, apparently, fees must be abolished.  Why?  Because the beautiful Labour vision, in which allowing tuition fees to rise “up to” £3,000 (up to £9,000 post-Browne) would create a functioning market in which institutions would compete like mad and multiple price-quality points would emerge was stymied by evil university vice-chancellors (i.e. Presidents) who “formed a cartel” in which all of them charged the maximum, thus stifling competition.

This is a strange and bewildering argument for two reasons.  First, in none of the three fee hikes was quality-enhancing competition a primary policy goal.  System expansion (and to a lesser extent, increasing per-student resources) was the primary goal in ’98 and ‘06; income maintenance in the face of swingeing public cutbacks was the goal in ’12.  The policies succeeded very well in both instance without damaging access for lower-income students.  Inter-institutional competition might have been a secondary goal in 2006 and a rationalization (though not a rationale) in ’12, but never the central aim.  To advocate dismantling policies because they didn’t meet some secondary goal is…bizarre.

Second, and more importantly, WHAT IN GOD’S NAME DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN WHEN THE FEE CAP WAS LIFTED?  Higher education is a Veblen good, for God’s sake: in the absence of obvious measures of quality (rankings notwithstanding), consumers tend to judge the quality of education on things like cost and so cost and demand are not negatively correlated – in fact in some ways, higher costs drive higher demand (look at George Washington University’s fee policy and admission rates over the past couple of decades if you don’t believe me).  For Adonis’ competitive fantasy to have taken place, there would have had to have been institutions eager to signal that they might have lower quality by pricing significantly below the rest of the herd -and what university would want to do that?  Perhaps Adonis should name the institutions that he thought should have adopted a Walmart pricing policy.

Now to be fair, Adonis is hardly alone in his delusions about higher education competition.  England is one of those rare places where the term “neo-liberal higher education policy” actually makes some kind of sense.  There is a touching faith among policy makers there that a genuinely functioning competitive market is just one set of transparency tools around the corner.  League tables and key information sets didn’t create a functioning market in which quality is rewarded with greater pricing power?  Well, then, we’ll create the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), in which government will decide what quality is, and create a fee regime which will gradually create differentiated pricing by fiat.  Take that, Thorstein Veblen!

But the difference between Adonis and the TEF crowd is that the latter isn’t trying to roll back two decades of policy to ingratiate themselves with Jeremy Corbyn.  They aren’t running away from a policy which has been mostly effective just because they’ve suddenly realized students don’t like fees and debt (which of course is nonsense – they don’t pay up-front fees and for the most part they sign up to a 9% graduate tax/contribution not “debt” per se).

Does English fee policy need changing?  Of course.  The 2012 changes and subsequent amendments were as dumb as a bag of hammers.  But it’s a hell of a leap from that to “time to abolish tuition”, at least for someone with pretensions to being taken seriously in policy debates.  If that’s not something Adonis aspires to any more, that’s his business.  But the fact that this step is being considered seriously not just by Labour but by Tories as well should be worrying to everyone.  It means reasonable policy making is being thrown out the window for reasons of currying short-term favour with specific voter demographics.

In this policy field as in so many others, England appears to be losing its mind.


May 30

The Resignation of Theresa May

London, May 4th, 2020

British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned her office today after a series of revelations that she had been in the pay of a foreign power since 2009.  Though both parties continue to deny the specifics of the story, a series of leaks from Universities Canada in the Canadian capital of Ottawa made it clear that the British politician had been receiving payments from this country’s universities for over a decade.

One Canadian higher education expert said he was not surprised by the revelations.  Said Toronto-based consultant Alex Usher, “It’s been evident for years that Theresa May was acting contrary to UK national interests, devising and implementing catastrophic immigration policies which resulted in tens of thousands of international students choosing Canadian schools instead of British ones.  It’s worth billions to Canadian universities.  Now we know why.”

Former Universities Canada staff, speaking under condition of anonymity, pinpointed the start of the operation in late 2009.  Shortly after the financial crisis of late 2008, Canadian universities became alarmed at the pressure the economic slump was likely to put on provincial education budgets.  Rather than try to put a lid on their own spending, most preferred to find new sources of revenue in order to keep spending high.  That new source was international students.

“It was kind of a no-brainer” said one source familiar with Universities Canada’s operations, on condition of anonymity.  “University Presidents could go head to head with Deans who wanted new facilities and faculty unions who wanted new hires and job security, or they could go enrol another couple of hundred students from India or the Middle East.  Which would you do?”

The problem, according to recently-obtained documents from Universities Canada, was competition.  Canadian institutions were nowhere near as accomplished at international recruitment as UK universities, and in the summer of 2009 the Canadian government had blindsided the sector by de-funding the Canadian Education Centre Network.  The question was how to overcome the competition.

Normally, Canadian attention would have focussed on Australia, traditionally the most aggressive international student recruiter.  But earlier that year news broke in Australia about racist attacks on Indian students in Melbourne.  That was potentially a boost for Canada as a destination, but there were fears that UK institutions might scoop up all these students instead.  That’s when a plan was hatched to undermine the UK as an international student demonstration.

“The pieces all just fell into place,” said the source.  “Universities Canada had a new President (Paul Davidson) who wanted to try new approaches to public policy.  And you had the Brown government in London that was self-destructing, likely to be replaced by a ridiculously inexperienced government led by David Cameron.  Subversion seemed like the obvious way to go.”

Universities’ Canada initial scouting on the Tories led them to believe that May was the likeliest choice for Home Office minister under a new Conservative government.  “Immigration and security were clearly going to be important files for the Conservatives to shore up their right flank and they needed a steady hand at the tiller.  Osborne was clearly going to be Chancellor, Hague was a shoo-in for Foreign Secretary, whilst Gove and Duncan-Smith had pet interests in other areas.  Basically, that left May.”

Though details on the meetings remain vague, at some point Universities Canada approached May and offered a deal: substantial sums of cash in return for adopting policies guaranteed to undermine the UK as an international student destination.

“We didn’t need to encourage her to take anti-migration positions,” said the anonymous source “because that was already baked into the Tory manifesto.  All we asked her to do was implement it in the stupidest way possible, by including students in the net migration targets.  We thought it might be an outlandish ask; turned out she loved the idea and implemented it beyond our wildest dreams.”

Canada saw results quickly.  After the Tories took power in the UK 2010, Canada saw its international student numbers rise quickly.  And, as predicted, the money from these students allowed Canadian institutions to keep spending even as provincial governments limited domestic tuition increases and allowed core funding to erode.

Not all of the success was planned, though.

“We didn’t see Brexit coming” said the Universities Canada source.  “And nor, obviously, did we suspect that the subsequent Conservative leadership race would end up being the comedy festival that it was, or that May would stay in power so long.  But what was really gratifying was that May continued her pro-Canada policies even after becoming Prime Minister, thus providing Canadian universities with billions in extra cash and obviating the need for any restructuring at all.

“Agent May was the most brilliant investment Canadian universities ever made,” said Usher.  “Without her the last decade would have been a lot more painful.  Now that she’s gone and her policies discredited, things are going to get much tougher for us”.

March 24

Representing Universities

Some light reading today, after a heavy week.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the political divide between those with higher education and those without. But I want to take you back to a time, where that political divide was made real. A time when universities actually had their own seats in Parliament, non-physical constituencies where the electors were made up entirely of alumni.

The practice of granting universities representation in Parliament seems to originate in Scotland sometime in the late 15th or early 16th centuries; certainly by the time James VI of Scotland took the Crown of England in 1603, it was well established. Upon James’ accession to the throne in London, he created Parliamentary constituencies for both Oxford and Cambridge, and gave each two seats (i.e. they were multi-member constituencies and the top two vote-getters won seats). Oxford’s church connections meant that it reliably delivered Royalist or Tory MPs, and some of the greatest names of the age represented it in Parliament, including Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon. Cambridge, on the other hand, was a hotbed of revolutionary activity and was represented at various points by two of Oliver Cromwell’s sons. Briefly, this system spread to the colonies: in the late seventeenth century William & Mary had a seat in the Virginia legislature.

As university education expanded in the UK, so too did the number of university seats. The University Dublin received a seat at Westminster in 1801 (having previously had a seat in the Irish Parliament). The Scottish universities were not given Westminster seats after the act of union but did receive seats (2 to split between the four of them) in 1868; the University of London was given a seat at the same time. Belfast and the University of Wales were given seats in 1918 as was – very temporarily as it turned out – the National University of Ireland. More interestingly, also in 1918, graduates of all other universities in England were given a combined 3 seats, meaning that in the election of that year, there were a total of 14 seats out of the 707 up for grabs (2% of the total) which were elected solely by university graduates.

There were echoes of this approach outside the UK as well. In Sweden and Finland, for instance, where “estate”-style Parliaments existed well into the nineteenth century, universities received positions in Parliament by virtue of their membership in the clerical estate. Within the British Empire, an attempt to imitate this system died a quick death in Australia (the University of Sydney had a seat in the New South Wales Parliament in one election in the 1870s), but lasted somewhat longer in India.

Elections to these seats were somewhat odd affairs. All alumni of an institution could vote in these elections, and this vote was in addition to their vote as a resident of a particular constituency (readers from British Columbia may remember something similar in that until 1993 business owners could get a second vote in municipal elections if their business was in a different district that their residence). However, to exercise the franchise, voters actually had to come to the university to vote (at some point – I can’t work out when – a postal vote option was added). To accommodate electors, polls were held over several days – usually after the general election. Campaigning was not really “done” and in fact during the voting period candidates were required to stay at least 10 miles away from the university. Of interest to Canadian electoral nerds: voting in multi-member constituencies was done by Single Transferable Vote. Civilization does not appear to have collapsed as a result.

By the twentieth century, these seats still often elected Tories, but it became the custom to elect established academic celebrities or public intellectuals as independents. But their days were numbered: when Labour finally won a majority government in 1945, it abolished all forms of plural representation, and so the last university members of Parliament exited the chamber in 1950.

Curiously, the practice still exists today in the unlikeliest of places. Ireland, which split from the UK in 1922, retained the concept of university constituencies in its Parliament (Dáil) until 1937. Under the new constitution of that year, the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland each received 3 seats in a 60-seat Senate, which they retain to this day. This makes more sense if you understand that the Senate of Ireland is one of the world’s most deeply bizarre legislative bodies, where 100% of the membership is indirectly elected through various corporatist bodies.

Bon weekend.


February 13

When Should the Education System Say “No”?

There’s an argument going on in the UK right now about re-introducing grammar schools.  Until the 1960s, grammar schools were a selective tier of the secondary system.  Everyone took exams at the age of eleven, and the most academically able were selected to go to these schools, the purpose of which (everyone understood) was to enable people to go to university.  Those who did not pass were essentially out of luck as far as further education went: their choices were circumscribed by the time they were eleven. Germany and some other central European countries still operate on this basis.  For some reason, the current government thinks it’s a good idea to go back to that system.

Like many others, I think it’s wrong for the education system to filter people at an early age.  Among other things, streaming – or any rationing by ability, really – is inevitably classist.  Yes, some poor kids will get through and get “a good education” and by some people’s lights this makes selection an “engine of mobility”.  But far more are consigned to the loser bin at an early age.  And that’s not good: you can’t ask the education system to kill people’s dreams off at such an early age.

But here’s the question: if not then, when?  Should the education ever say no to someone’s dreams?

We used to say “no” to people a lot.  We used to fail out a lot of kids from high school and that was OK, because hey, we had to have standards (I note with interest that Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, in their new book Dream Factories, have taken to calling near-universal high school completion rates an obvious example of “dumbing down”. Nice.) We used to restrict entry to university a lot.  Heck, 30 years ago we had fewer than half the number of students we had today, and the median student today would have had trouble accessing university in the late 1980s.  In some parts of Europe, even though they have so-called “open” admissions systems (everyone who passes the exit examination of the top-secondary school stream, such as the baccalaureat or the abitur) it remains policy to fail out large numbers of students after first year who “can’t handle the work” – that is, say yes, then say no.

To a considerable degree, widening access is about learning how not to say no to people.  But to some extent this just puts off the day of reckoning, because after education comes the labour market and the labour market is under no obligation to say “yes” to anyone.  There are more people who want to be professors than there are tenure-track jobs, more people wanting to be lawyers (crazy but true) than there are positions at law firms, more teacher-wannabes than teaching positions.  “No” comes, eventually, at least for some.

Now some people will argue that because the labour market says “no”, the education system also needs to say no – especially when it comes to professional schools. To these people, the expansion of law school (or Master’s degrees in education, take your pick) is a travesty. All those people paying for an education which doesn’t necessarily bring in a huge rate of return?  What we need to do is reduce the number of incoming students so as to raise average rates of return!  (There is a similar argument with doctoral students: there are never going to be enough academic jobs for these students, so why let them in in the first place)?

I get that argument, but to me it doesn’t wash any more than early selection washes.  Yes, there are more wannabe lawyers and teachers than available positions.  But why should anyone but law firms and schools be the ones who say no?  Why should higher education institutions be the gate-keepers?  Until you’ve actually given people a chance to succeed at a professional school, how would you know who the best lawyers/teachers will be anyway?  And how, in practice, will institutional gate keeping not simply re-introduce the class-based outcomes?

The only legitimate argument in favour of limiting enrolment, it seems to me, is if public money is at stake.  At some point, a government which feels it is not getting a good return on its investment because graduates are not getting jobs would be within its right to stop funding new places.  But if students are spending their own money, as they do for law school, why should anyone want to stop students from spending their own money to pursue their desired career?

Yes, consumers need to be protected from mis-selling, obviously; institutions shouldn’t be allowed to mislead people about the odds of someone eventually saying “no”.   But other than that, the moral case for institutions as gate keepers isn’t much better than that for bringing back grammar schools.

January 12

Post-Brexit Options

One highly amusing by-product of the frantic Canada-EU-Walloon trade negotiation finale last fall was watching the UK government suddenly realize that negotiating agreements with a 27-country trade bloc is actually really difficult and that this Brexit thing is almost certainly not going to end well.  Which of course has some reasonably significant implications for UK universities.  But how exposed are UK universities to Brexit?

Arguably, the bigger post-Brexit implications have to do with staff who may be denied residency, future staff who won’t be allowed entry and broken research partnerships with EU-funded colleagues on the continent.  But I’m going to limit my analysis here to the student intake because it’s a little easier to quantify.

Let’s at what’s at stake for the UK in terms of international student numbers.

UK International Student Numbers by Country of Origin


Source: UK Council for International Student Affairs. EU shown in red, non-EU in blue

Somewhat surprisingly (to me at least), only about 30% of the UK’s international student body comes from the EU, with Germany and France the largest source countries.  That’s about 125,000 students, paying roughly £9,000 per year, so that’s a £1.1B hit to the sector.  That sounds big (and of course it’s nothing to be sneezed at), but in a sector worth around £33B, it’s not *that* crucial.

Now, how much of this money would institutions actually give up if Brexit goes through?  That’s still a big unknown, because it depends on how many foreigners will be allowed to get visas post-2019 and whether or not students will be considered within the cap.  For the past few years – since now-PM Theresa May became Home Secretary in 2010 in fact – the Home Office has been including non-EU students in the cap, and as a result international student numbers have been falling for quite a while now and are now about a third lower than they were before the Cameron government took office.  A similar result with EU students would see a loss of about £400 million to the sector.

But, say some, that’s without accounting for any loss from higher tuition fees.  Pre-Brexit, EU students pay what domestic students pay.  Post-Brexit, they will in theory pay a higher “international” fee.  These fees depend on the type of course undertaken: they average £13,394 for lecture-based programs, £15,034 for laboratory-based programs and £24,169 for clinical disciplines (see here for more details).  Some feel that a shift to these higher fees may deter even more students.  Frankly, this is a weak argument: if institutions really want foreign students, they can lower the fees (the bigger threat is probably these students’ loss of access to UK student loans, without which many might find even the current fees a struggle to bear).  And anyways, these higher fees mean that if UK universities only lost 1/3 of their EU students, they’d actually be up on the deal thanks to higher tuition rates.

Anyways, as you can tell, I’m not convinced that the loss of EU students is in fact a major challenge to the UK higher ed sector, though obviously it might be to specific universities who are overweight with this group.  It certainly makes you wonder why some institutions are musing about creating “overseas” campuses inside the EU (see here, here).    The answer, primarily, is that these proposed campuses are about trying to get around research collaboration barriers more than they are about gaining student numbers through branch campuses. I can’t actually imagine many EU countries (or the EU itself) would be daft enough to leave such loopholes open, but you never know.  But in any event, branch campuses are high-cost, high-risk and for students tend to be very much second-choice to home institutions.  If there are a lot of frustrated, wannabe-English students in Europe as a result of Brexit, they’re probably likelier to head to Ireland or North America as they are to go to University of East Anglia – Lens, or University of Chichester-Malmo.

In short, the student-side of Brexit should be a lot less concerning than the staff side of Brexit.

December 09

Does Student Debt Matter If You’re Not Going to Pay It Back?

You can accumulate one hell of a lot of debt these days in the UK.  Just in an undergraduate degree, fees are ‎£9,000 per year plus you can get another ‎£10,702 in maintenance loans per year of you’re studying in London.  Over a three-year degree that’s ‎£59,106 or a tad over $100,000 (yes, really). So, at face value one can understand the spate of stories coming out of the UK these days talking about how their massive debt loads are going to paralyze them for life, stop them being able to buy housing etc.

Except, wait – these are income contingent loans, not mortgage-style loans.  The maximum payment you have to make in any given year is 9% of marginal income over 21,000.  And the debt incurred doesn’t necessarily need to be paid back.  Loans are forgiven after 25 years, regardless of how much you have repaid.  Estimates vary, in part because it depends on what discount rates one chooses and in part because the government criminally keeps messing with the terms of the loans, but at the moment it is expected that between 25 and 40% of student loan balances will never be repaid and a higher proportion of students (perhaps 50%) will receive at least some forgiveness on their loans.  For those who do not repay their loans, the UK loan system is more like a tax than a loan – a 9% surtax on income over 21,000 which lasts for 25 years after graduation (more on that here).

Despite massive nominal debts, students simply aren’t facing massive repayment burden.   A graduate making 30,000 is only repaying 810 per year, or about 3.1% of after tax income, which is a heck of a lot less than the amount that the average Canadian graduate with student loan debt is paying (our grads pay close to 8% of after-tax income on average).  And they’re paying that regardless of how big their debt is, which is not true in Canada either: at any given level of income over $25,000 per year, Canadian student loans borrowers’ rise along with the amount of debt they have up to a maximum of 20% of family income.

(If you’re wondering how that works – how UK loans can be so big and yet borrowers repay so little – it’s precisely because the government expects quite large losses on the program.  Student loan burdens are easy to reduce if you’re prepared to go to extreme lengths to subsidize them).

The point of income-contingent loan systems like those in the UK, with their guarantees, their maximum payments and their generous forgiveness systems is precisely  to do everything possible to make life easier for borrowers, to ensure that their student loan debts are not going to affect their ability to borrow for other things later on.

But perception is everything.  If graduates feel that their large debts constrain their ability to do make certain life choices like buying a house even though (technically) they don’t, then can we say the policy is actually working? There’s an interesting side point here. When deciding on applications for mortgages or other types of consumer debt, it’s unclear whether banks in places like Australia and UK actually treat income-contingent student loan debt differently than Canadian and US banks treat mortgage-style debt.  They should, but apparently nobody knows for sure because no one’s ever checked – not that banks would necessarily fess up if they didn’t.

Now, I’m not saying that these stories coming out of the UK are in fact true; people in opposition to government policies will tend to come up with whatever argument sounds good at a particular moment. But even if such views aren’t widespread, the point raised is a good one.  Student loan policy wonks have always assumed that if you provide guarantees and limit liability/risk on student loans, then students will be ok with debt.  But if the facts of the policy don’t change people’s attitudes about risk, then the policies will fail, no matter how well they deal with the actual problems at hand.

But what’s the alternative?  It’s a bit of a scary thought.

September 09

Some Intriguing New UK Access Data

The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (also known in these parts as “the other HESA”) put out an interesting report recently on participation in higher education in England (available here).  England is of course of great interest to access researchers everywhere because its massive tuition hike in 2012 is a major natural policy experiment: if there is no clear evidence of changes in access after a tuition hike of that magnitude then we can be more confident that tuition hikes elsewhere won’t have much of an effect either (assuming students are all given loans to cover the fees as they are in England).  I’ve written about previously about some of the evidence that has come out to date back here, here, here and here: mostly the evidence has shown little to no effect on low-income students making a direct transition to university, but some effects on older students.

The new (other) HESA report is interesting.  You may have seen the Guardian headline on this, which was that since the change in fees, the percentage of state school students who proceeded to higher education by the age of 19 fell from 66% to 62% in the years either side of the policy change (note: regular state-school students make up a little over 83% of those enrolled in A-level or equivalent courses, with the rest split about equally between selective state schools and independent schools).  On the face of it, that’s a pretty bad result for those concerned about access.

But there are three other little nuggets in the report which the Guardian chose to ignore.  The first was that if you looked simply at those who took A-levels, the drop was much smaller (from 74% to 72%).  Thus the biggest drop was from those taking what are known as “A-level equivalents” (basically, applied A-levels).  The second is that among the very poorest students – that is, those who receive free school meals, essentially all of whom are in the main state sector – enrolment rates essentially didn’t move at all.  They were 21% in 2011/12, 23% in 2012/13 and 22% in 2013/14. All of this is a long way up from 13% observed in 2005, the year before students from families with incomes below £20,000 had to start paying tuition.  Third and last, the progression rate of state school students to the most selective institutions didn’t change at all, either.

So what this means is that the decline was most concentrated not on the poor in state schools but in the middle-class, and landed more on students with “alternative” credentials.  That doesn’t make a loss of access any more acceptable, but it does put a crimp in the theory that the drop was *caused* by higher tuition fees.  If “affordability” (or perceived affordability) were the issue, why would it hit middle-income students more than lower-income students?  If affordability were the issue, why would it be differentially affecting those taking alternative credentials?  There some deeper questions to answer here.


July 14


Morning, all.

Everyone’s writing a Brexit thinkpiece these days.  Literally, everyone.  I’m feeling left out.  So here’s mine.

1) Brexit isn’t a foregone conclusion.  Yes, Leave won 52% of a non-binding referendum based on a pack of lies about the results of future negotiations that would make the PQ blush.  But the UK government has yet to invoke Article 50, the clause in the EU constitution that signals a 2-year countdown to departure, and will certainly not do so until a new PM is chosen.They may not do so until after the French and German elections next year, and as the realities of negotiating a divorce sink in they may never do so (and – irony of ironies, there are not enough trade lawyers in the UK to negotiate such deals, so they are having to import them ) .  Even if they do start negotiations, the final settlement may be so far from the Leave fairytale that there would almost certainly be a huge demand for a second referendum before ratification.  So all this handwringing may be for naught.

2) Even if Brexit doesn’t happen, this episode can cause a lot of damage.  The UK hasn’t been booted out of the Erasmus student mobility program yet, but with racist incidents up 500% since the vote, you can bet there will fewer European students thinking London is a place they’ll feel secure.  The UK hasn’t been booted out of the Horizon 2020 European research scheme yet, but multi-national scientific teams have been pulling UK researchers’ names from their proposals in anticipation of Brexit.  And the idea that the UK will make up for the drop in funding?  Good luck with that.  Paradoxically, the longer the uncertainty about Brexit, the less likely the UK will actually pull the trigger; but conversely, the longer they wait, the greater the damage will be.

3) What will happen to International student flows?  Now this is where it gets tricky.  A lot of the focus right now is on EU students, and the fear that they won’t come to the UK because they will have to pay international student fees instead of domestic ones.  But domestic fees are already pretty high (and in humanities and social sciences are set well above the cost of delivery). If universities want to keep those students they could always grant concessionary fees to EU students and keep them paying exactly what they’re paying right now.  No, I think the real issue with EU students has to do with whether students still think the UK is a place they want to spend a part of their lives.  Lots of them now go assuming they can stay and work there: no more.  But it’s not clear that countries like Canada or Australia would be able to pick up on this loss.  If the point of going to London was because it was a “destination” rather than simply a chance to learn English, it’s not obvious that Melbourne or Toronto would be a satisfactory second choice.

It’s the same with non-EU students: you might think that there would be a lot of non-EU students who might be dissuaded from going either because of increasing incidence of racism or because London was no longer a way into the EU.  Since the Tories took power it’s been increasingly difficult for graduating students to immigrate anyway, so it’s unlikely to be the latter: Teresa May’s immigration saw that lot off years ago.  But the racism/intolerance thing?  That’s a vulnerability.

4) Can Canadian universities and colleges cash in on this?  Yes. Advertise a lot in Asian markets where UK currently does well.  Emphasize security and multiculturalism.  Talk about possibilities for immigration.  And do it fast, because odds are the Aussies are already there doing it.

Hope you’re all having a good summer.

June 09

Modes of College-Going

At HESA towers, we’ve recently been looking at some data on student costs of living in various countries.  This has prompted a number of observations with respect to the ways in which higher education – however global and transnational it may occasionally appear to be – is still deeply rooted in national cultures.

One of the things that started us going down this route was looking at estimates of cost of living for American students.  Everyone of course knows that students at American universities live in relative luxury what with the hotel-style dormitories, gourmet food options, climbing walls, lazy rivers and whatnot.  But what kind of staggered us when we took a look at the data was that American students actually appear to be paying *more* once they leave campus.  According to IPEDS, On-campus cost of living is $11,795 (C$14,792), off-campus (not with parents) cost of living is $12,986 (C$16,484) (for comparison, surveys show average living costs of off-campus not-with-parents in Canada is around C$8,500).

Now take this data with a grain of salt: American cost-of-living data is not based on surveys as it is in Canada, but on a compilation of institutional estimates of costs of living (at diligent institutions this may be based on student surveys but at less diligent institutions it may be a number dreamt up with a view to making students eligible for larger sums of students loans).  But at a deeper level there is a truth here.  American families (middle-class ones anyway) do view the higher education experience in a slightly different way than Canadians do.  Up here, there is a sense that post-secondary is a time when students “pay their dues” and live frugally; in the US, college is supposed to be “the best four years” of a student’s life.  And that materially affects the standard of living we expect students to maintain which in turn affects how much students “need” in order to attend college.  And apparently, that amount is “nearly twice as much per year as in Canada”.

Or, take the UK.  This is a country where over 70% of students leave home to go to school.  This has been falling gradually from the low 90%s twenty years ago, but the fall has been very gradual and seemingly unrelated to spikes in tuition fees (the increasing proportion of students from non-white backgrounds, who may not subscribe to this cultural tradition, is a likelier culprit.  You’d think that as tuition went from $0 to $16,000 you might get a *little* bit of price response, but no: spending huge wodges of cash to live away from home is so ingrained as a being part of the “university experience” that even big increases in costs (both tuition and, if you’re studying in London, rent) make little dent in the practice. 

Of course, in some parts of Europe, it’s the opposite: almost nothing gets students out of the house in Italy and Greece (even with low or no tuition): living away from parents simply isn’t part of the DNA.  In theory that should make higher education more accessible because it’s cheaper, but there’s not much evidence that’s the case.  In Scandinavia, people tend to draw out their time in universities, entering later and spending a lot of time switching back and forth between school and the labour market (more on that here). Result: on average, Scandinavian students are a *lot* older than North American ones.  Similarly: in South Korea, males have to do (roughly) two years of universal military service, which for reasons which I’ve never been able to work out, most males do in the *middle* of their university career (a common pattern is to do military service after sophomore year), which means their time-to-completion stats look very weird.

Anyways, the point of all this is simply to  remember that while higher education is a “common” global experience which a growing percentage of the world’s youth undergo, it remains embedded in some deeply national cultures about how students should transition from youth to adulthood.  It’s a major reason why access and student aid policy doesn’t travel well; it’s also why international comparisons  of students and student outcomes need to be done *very* carefully.

May 26

Taking Advantage of Course Duplication

I recently came across an interesting blogpost from a professor in the UK named Thomas Leeper (see here), talking about the way in which professors the world over spend so much time duplicating each others’ work in terms of developing curricula.  Some key excerpts:

” …the creation of new syllabi is something that appears to have been repeated for decades, if not centuries. And yet, it all seems rather laborious in light of the relatively modest variation in the final courses that each of us creates on our own, working in parallel.”

“… In the digital age, it is incredibly transparent that the particular course offerings at every department are nearly the same. The variation comes in the quality of lectures and discussion sections, the set of assignments required of students, and the difficulty of the grading.”

“We expend our efforts designing strikingly similar reading lists and spend much less time on the factors that actually differentiate courses across institutions: lecture quality, learning activities, and feedback provision… we should save our efforts on syllabus construction and spend that time and energy elsewhere in our teaching.”

Well, quite.  But I think you can push this argument a step further.  I’ve heard (don’t quote me because I can’t remember exactly where) that if you group together similar courses across institutions (e.g. Accounting 100, American History survey courses, etc.), then something like 25% of all credits awarded in the United States are accumulated in just 100 “courses”.  I expect numbers would not be entirely dissimilar in other Anglophone countries.  And though this phenomenon probably functions on some kind of power law – the next 100 courses probably wouldn’t make up 10% of all credits – my guess is your top 1000 courses would account for 50-60% or more of all credits.

Now imagine all Canadian universities decided to get together and make a really top-notch set of e-learning complements to each of these 1000 courses.  The kinds of resources that go into a top-notch MOOC  in order to improve the quality of each of these classes (like, for instance, the University of Alberta’s Dino 101).  Not that they would be taught via MOOC – teaching would remain the purview of individual professors – but that each have excellent dedicated on-line resources associated with each of them.  Let’s say they collectively put $500,000 into each of them, over the course of four years.   That would be $500M in total, or $125M per year.  Obviously, those aren’t investments any single institution could contemplate, but if we consider the investment from the perspective of the entire sector (which spends roughly $35 billion per year) this is chump change.   $120 per student.  A trifle.

So, a challenge to university Presidents and Provosts: why not do this?  We’re talking here about a quantum jump in learning resources available for half the credits undergraduate earn each semester.  Why not collectively invest money to improve the quality of the learning environment?  Why not free up professors’ time so they can focus more on lecture quality and feedback provision?  And to provinces and CMEC: why not create incentives for institutions to do precisely this?

A debate should be had.  Let’s have it.

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