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Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Universities Canada

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”.

April 06

Fuzzy Skills

About a month ago, Universities Canada held a meeting to talk up the Liberal Arts.  I wasn’t there, and can only go by what I saw on twitter and what I can glean from this University Affairs article which you can read here.  But if the conversation was actually anything like what the sub-head suggests it was (we need better stories!), I’m not impressed.

At one level, “we need better stories” is always true.  Good communication is always worthwhile.  But if you claim that’s all you need then basically you’re saying that actual changes in practices are not necessary. We here in academia are fine, it’s you ignorant lot out there who are the problem – and once we tell better stories, you will see the light.   It’s arrogant, frankly.  More introspection about needed pedgagogical changes and less “we need better stories”, please (I note that Mount Allison’s Robert Campbell at least took that tack – good on him).

Moreover if you look at the “good” stories that Arts faculties want to tell, you’ll find they’re pretty much all about how various social scientists have changed public policy.  Very little is about the humanities (a result perhaps of the usual Canadian confusion about the distinction between “Arts”, “Liberal Arts” and “Humanities”).  At best, you get some vague words about how humanities promotes “soft skills”, which frankly isn’t very helpful.  Partly that’s because “soft skills” as a term is somewhat gendered (and thus likely to turn off males) and partly because there’s very little evidence that humanities education does much to foster that cluster of personality traits, social graces, and all that other stuff which clusters around “emotional intelligence”.  It’s possible – maybe even likely – that humanities graduates might possess these skills, but that may simply be a question of who chooses to enter these fields rather than what skills get developed by the disciplines.

Yet I think there is a simple and unambiguous way to sell the humanities: they are not about soft skills,   they are about “fuzzy skills”.    They are about ambiguity.  They are about pattern recognition.  They are about developing and testing hypotheses in areas of human affairs where evidence is always partial and never clear-cut.  Humanities graduates are not about following rules; they are about interpreting rules when the context changes.  

And you know what?  Doing that kind of interpretation well is *hard*.  The worst mistake the humanities have ever made is accepting the public impression that not being an “exact” science means humanities are “easy”.  They are not.  Good work in the humanities is hard precisely because there are many possible answers to a question.  The difficulty lies in sifting the more plausible from the less plausible (unless of course you dive completely into the post-modernist “I’m OK you’re OK” intellectual rathole where every answer is equally correct; then humanities is just nonsense). 

Think about the world of espionage and intelligence: this is extraordinarily difficult work precisely because we never have enough information and empathy to know exactly what a target is thinking or might be doing.  But it is precisely the synthesis of information from across a wide range of disciplines, and the close reading of texts – what we used to call philology-  that allows us to make competent guesses.  Quantitative data analysis is useful in this (and lord knows we probably shouldn’t let humanities students graduates without some understanding of statistics and probability); but so too are the basic “fuzzy skills” taught in humanities programs.  When business talks about “critical thinking” skills it is precisely this kind of analysis and decision-making, writ small, that they are talking about.

I think that’s a pretty good story for the humanities.  The problem is that for these good stories to work, humanities faculties have to live up to them.  Simply telling a good story isn’t enough. Curricula (and more importantly assessment) need to be re-designed in order to show how these fuzzy skills are actually being taught and absorbed.  No more assuming students get these non-disciplinary skills by osmosis because “everybody knows” that’s what humanities do.  Design for fuzzy skills.  Incorporate them.  Measure them.

And then you’ll have both a good story and a good reality.  That would be real and welcome progress.

November 06

What Canadians Think About Universities, and Where Canadian Universities Want To Go

A couple of quick notes about two interesting things from Universities Canada this week.

The first is the release of some public opinion polling, which they commissioned in the spring, regarding universities and other forms of higher education.  You can see the whole thing here, but I want to highlight a couple of slides, in particular.

The first is this one:

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It seems Canadians are overwhelmingly positive about most post-secondary institutions (though Quebecers clearly have a few doubts about CEGEPs).  Somewhat perplexingly, UnivCan also felt the need to test Canadians’ opinions about universities in Europe (do Canadians really have deep feelings about French grands écoles, German fachhochschulen, and Romanian politehnici?).  Mostly, though, this is all to the good.

But the more interesting set of answers is this one:

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Turns out Canadians think their universities are world-class, practical, and produce valuable research… but they also really need to change.  Which seems about right to me.  However, one wishes there might have been a follow-up: what kind of change is needed, exactly?

Often times, these kind of dissonant results (you’re great/please change) give the poll-reader a lot of room to cherry-pick.  Is UnivCan doing this?  Well, maybe.  Take a look at the new “Commitments to Canadians” the Presidents collectively issued this week.  They commit themselves to:

  • Equip all students with the skills and knowledge they need to flourish in work and life, empowering them to contribute to Canada’s economic, social, and intellectual success.
  • Pursue excellence in all aspects of learning, discovery, and community engagement.
  • Deliver a broad range of enriched learning experiences.
  • Put our best minds to the most pressing problems – whether global, national, regional, or local.
  • Help build a stronger Canada through collaboration and partnerships with the private sector, communities, government, and other educational institutions in Canada and around the world.

OK, so some of this is yadda yadda, whatever kind-of-stuff. (“pursue excellence in everything we do” is utterly void of meaning). But an emphasis on partnerships is good, as is the commitment to preparing students for work & life – in that order.  Something stronger on internships and co-ops would have been better: both UC Chair Elizabeth Cannon and UC President Paul Davidson have spoken a lot about co-ops in recent speeches, but a specific commitment to them is lacking in the actual statement.  That’s too bad: co-ops and internships have the potential to be a genuine and unique value proposition for Canadian higher education; our universities do a lot more of it than those in other developed countries.  And pretty much everyone loves them, bar the sniffy types who disdain them as “mere training”.

The issue is follow-through, of course, and Lord knows shifting institutional cultures ain’t easy.  But one gets the sense that Canadian universities are absorbing the change message, and acting upon it.  That’s good news.

Have a good weekend.