Put Student Interests First
Posted July 1, 2016
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) recently completed by the province and its universities is not focused on outcomes for students. It should be.
Universities exist to create and disseminate knowledge. The primary argument for seeking taxpayer support is that the university experience will enable greater contribution by graduates to the provincial economy and social fabric.
In practice, half or more of faculty time is engaged with research. Bits of it, in areas such as agriculture, ocean sciences, medicine, and information technology can be directly related to what is happening in Nova Scotia. Most of it is only of general academic interest, and can often be so esoteric as to be inaccessible to all but the knowledgeable reader.
It is nevertheless true that there is a symbiotic relationship between teaching and research. Maintaining a productive research environment is frequently necessary to the attraction and retention of excellent teachers.
That does not change the province’s interest in having the university graduates who become productive contributors to the provincial economy. It will spend $361 million this year in support of that goal.
The MOU talks about tracking three measures of student experience: student satisfaction, pace of transit through the post-secondary system, and student experience post-graduation. But the commitment to achieving effective measures is half-hearted.
Universities will be able to use their own preferred measures of satisfaction with no required consistency with regard to timing or methodology. There is, as yet, no system to track student progress through the system.
The only measure of student employment incomes is from a survey done by the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission every two years. The survey of 2012 graduates of their outcomes two years later was just released in May.
A total of 2,100 respondents across all Maritime universities responded to questions about employment status and further studies.
The number of respondents for individual universities are not big enough to be statistically useful for any except possibly Dalhousie, and even there the numbers would be too small for individual program clusters.
More importantly, there is no commitment to make any of these university level measures available for students to consider when making their post-secondary choices.
This is in vivid contrast with the timely, frequent, detailed, and publicly available report by the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). The 2015 survey was sent to all 3,828 graduates in 2014; 1,379 (36%) replied.
Employment outcome results are provided in great detail by area of study. Overall student satisfaction is also measured and compared with previous years. Students who read the report are well informed on their job prospects.
NSCC continues to show enrolment growth, in spite of the dwindling pool of Nova Scotian high school students from which to draw. Meanwhile the universities, able to take students from anywhere in the world, have seen slowly diminishing enrolment.
From the province’s point of view, an excellent primary measure of value for money spent at a university would be student enrolment. Historically, that has been the main determinant in funding formulas—but the numbers were only updated every decade.
It is now proposed that the significance of enrolment be diminished in funding decisions on the grounds that it is difficult for universities to shrink their cost base as needed. When the students vote with their feet, shouldn’t the province pay attention?
An even better primary measure would be the number of students who graduate and become tax-paying workers in Nova Scotia. A group of high-tech CEOs in Ontario recently pointed out that university graduates who immediately leave for jobs in the United States provide no repayment on the provincial subsidy they received.
Most of the funding provided to universities should be tied to enrolment. A better way to distribute some of it—say, the $1,283 annual bursary for Nova Scotian students—would be through forgivable loan vouchers. These would be interest free for the first couple of years after graduation, and the loan balance reduced by the amount of provincial income tax paid.
Students who left for other provinces would be expected to repay the loans. Correspondingly, out-of-province students who stay in Nova Scotia would get an equivalent benefit as a credit against provincial income taxes payable.
The new MOU commendably provides a degree of funding certainty for universities and gives them latitude in setting fees for out-of-province students. But it suffers from the same problem as the Action Plan for primary and secondary schools. It seems to be more interested in inputs than the outcomes they are supposed to achieve.
Education is the one area where the Liberals have spent aggressively. They need to demand more accountability. What is good for students and student retention will also be good for the province.
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