Dear Christy Clark,

I know I won’t get a response; I’ll be lucky if anyone actually reads this.  I know a little about education and have a great deal at stake here in BC regarding the current labour issues with the BCTF so I hope you’ll at least consider what I’m about to say.  I spend most of my time working back east in Toronto and traveling throughout Canada.  Almost all my work is with 40 or so universities across the country – dealing with issues about entrance standards, curriculum, pedagogy, and faculty development.  I can’t say I understand how to teach kindergarten but I do fully understand what it takes to help a student in grade 12 prepare for entering university.  And I have some personal skin in that game as well – my 17 year old daughter should be starting Grade 12 this week.  Should be.

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How do I explain to her that in nine other provinces the new Grade 12 students are now going back to school. They will have the full nine or ten months of education that their provinces have deemed ideal or necessary to help students learn the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to enter university 12 months from now.  But here in BC the government is okay with letting our Grade 12 students fall behind.  I’m not okay with any delay for any student, but my disgust is particularly relevant for our Grade 12s.  They don’t have years to get caught back up and be at the same level as students from Alberta or Ontario.  And yes, less than six months from now BC Grade 12 students, and particularly my daughter, will be submitting their university applications to universities across the country, in the US, and elsewhere.  And what will those applications say?  “I was barely able to complete Grade 11; I wasn’t even able to have Grade 11 final exams.  And I haven’t even started Grade 12 yet.”

Now if you were an admissions officer at a university, how do you assess that student’s application when you are comparing it to students from other provinces where their Grade 12 students are actually doing classes, completing curriculum, and writing exams?  It’s not a good situation.  Perhaps if you have a son in Grade 8 or 9 who can make up the deficiency before they need to apply to university or perhaps if you choose to send your child to a private school where the current strike/lockout does not apply, you don’t care.  But I do because my daughter who is bright – really bright, and should have her choice of some top flight universities is being put at a serious disadvantage.  The sad thing is, there’s nothing she can do about it.  She’s spent 17 years working very hard to be at the top of her class and you are about to slam that door in her face.  Try explaining that to her.  I have tried and there is no good explanation.

Christy – you need to step up on this and actually be a leader.  Take charge.  I completely understand the difficult situation the BCTF and BC Government are in.  But as adults we shouldn’t be harming the future of our most valuable resource – the kids.   At a minimum, get the Grade 12s back in school.  I don’t care how you do it.  We’ll call it a reasonable step forward, a compromise, perhaps we’ll even say that we’re acting in the best interests of our kids.  Wouldn’t that be something?

So as an educator myself, as a parent of two kids in public school, as a parent of a Grade 12 student desperately waiting to start and complete Grade 12, and as a resident in the Premier’s own riding I’m imploring Christy to step up to the plate.  Usually I’d ask you to swing for the fences and get a home run, but I’m far too realistic.  All I’m asking is that you negotiate a walk and get to first base, or bunt the ball three meters and get to first base.  It’s not about winning the game, or the BCTF winning the game.  It’s about playing the game and realizing that there are multiple futures at stake here.  You keep trying for a homerun and missing the ball so just slow down and try a gentler approach.  Let’s get the Grade 12s to first base – in the door, back at the desks and labs.  Next year we can all rejoice and celebrate when those same Grade 12s go off to begin their lives as university students – a road that will lead them to joining the electorate, the workforce, and becoming socially responsible citizens of this province and country.  The other option is not acceptable and your lack of attention and leadership is deplorable.  So dust off your cleats, step into the batter’s box, and don’t swing for a homerun.  Small steps forward are better than no forward progress.

Yet another post on drunken student behaviour

I’ve posted before about alcohol use/abuse (and earlier) on campus and while I support the notion of “students growing up” I truly think that universities, administrators, faculty, staff and students need to approach this problem (and it is a problem) with renewed interest.  The article below is about how student groups were shocked/dismayed/upset at the University of Alberta’s recent decision to ban alcohol in public portions of some student residences.  I’m actually surprised that such use was ever allowed.  Yes the drinking age in Alberta is 18 but surely there are many minors in residence and why would public areas of a residence building ever be appropriate for drinking, drunken behaviour, and vomiting?  If you don’t think student drinking is a problem, read this – it’s disturbing and shocking.

A university must be primarily a place of higher education.  That requires a focus on learning and rarely do learning and alcohol go together.  In fact, learning and alcohol ABUSE never go together – well except for the first time you wake up with a hangover and say “never again”.  I’m all for holistic student development; university should not just be about formal learning in the classroom.  This is an excellent time to explore new things and meet new people.  Those don’t require being drunk.  If students think that wandering through four years of university in a drunken haze is acceptable, society has done something incredibly wrong.  If you want to drink your brains out, withdraw from school and fill your boots.

Kudos to the University of Alberta for their stance!

Click the image below for the full article and comments – trust me, the comments are entertaining.

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Running A Student Pub (into the ground)

Earlier this spring, the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance (www.uwsa.ca) announced that they were closing the student-owned-and-operated pub (The Thirsty Scholar) due to financial reasons. This announcement surprised me; why can’t a business successfully sell beer to an audience traditionally associated with beer and pubs? I suppose there are a myriad of potential reasons—students don’t like beer, the pub is paying outrageous rent to its landlord, or general mismanagement for starters. I decided to dig through the pub’s financial statements (they should be publicly available, as records for most student organizations are). You should check their financials web page… you may have better luck than I did (www.uwsa.ca/financials.php). I couldn’t find a working link to any financial statements for the pub that were more recent than April 30, 2009. Note to the UWSA executive: I suggest you hire a computer science student to fix up your website.

What’s the point of looking at these financials? What can they really tell us? Financial statements should be one source for examining an entity’s history. With a little interpretation, we can usually learn quite a lot. Financial statement sleuthing may not be as popular as CSI-style forensics, but really is not that much different. Let’s take a look at the statements that were available.  Note to reader: you will want to open a set of the financial statements and follow along with me.

The second page of the 2009 financial statements is the “Review Engagement Report.” A review engagement is one type of assurance on the financial statements. It’s not nearly as good as an audit engagement, but provides some level of comfort that the financial statements are not grossly misstated. The third page is the index—not useful.

The fourth page is the “Statement of Income” for the year with comparatives for the prior year. We find out that the pub had just over $450,000 of revenue, compared to $511,000 the year before, with beer sales declining from $172,000 to $123,000 (a 28% decline!). Gross profit increased though, which is usually good news. Gross profit is the amount left over after paying for the direct costs of beer, food, and liquor. For 2009, gross profit was $201,702. In order for the pub to be profitable, all the rest of the expenses needed to be less than that. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. Actual expenses were $261,854, resulting in an operating loss for 2009 of $60,152. That’s a slight improvement from the prior year when the pub had an operating loss of over $95,000. What was by far the biggest expense? Wages. In fact, the wage expense exceeded the gross profit in both 2009 and 2008. That means the pub had no chance of being profitable even before it paid for any advertising, insurance, policing and security, or repairs on the facility. I hunted around for some industry statistics on drinking establishments and food services and I found the following data (www.restaurantcentral.ca/ResearchTrends/IndustryStatistics.aspx): average cost of goods sold was 36% of revenue, and average labour cost was 33.9% of revenue. The Thirsty Scholar’s numbers for 2009 were: Cost of goods sold, 56% of revenue; and labour, 48% of revenue. That both of those figures were so grossly out-of-line with industry norms suggests management incompetence. I’ve seen similar issues with student-run businesses before. Don’t get me wrong, I love student-run and student-owned businesses, but they must be run by people with appropriate training and it is important that the student associations ensure the managers are properly trained. Ok, enough on the income statement, let’s move on.

The fifth page is the “Statement of Retained Earnings,” which accumulates all the profit or loss retained by the business. Again, it isn’t good news for the Thirsty Scholar. By April 2009, they had accumulated total losses of almost $1 million. The losses that we saw on the income statement for 2009 and 2008 were not a short-term issue—the pub must have been accumulating losses for quite a while.

The sixth page, the balance sheet, is the last that I will examine for this post. Remember the key accounting equation: Assets = Liabilities + Equity. The Thirsty Scholar had total assets of $29,764 (mostly cash and accounts receivable). Their liabilities? $885,359! That’s incredible! They owed almost 30 times what they had in assets. I’ve rarely seen such a poor Asset:Liability ratio, and without digging too much further it seems pretty obvious that this business is broke both financially and structurally. Shut it down, pull the pin.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat macabre walk through the financial statements of a student pub. Next time you’re sitting in your local school pub enjoying a beverage, don’t forget the lessons we can learn from examining the financial statements of a business.

Drink responsibly!!

Note: this blog was originally posted on my site hosted by Pearson Education (http://php2.pearsoncanada.ca/highered/inthenews/accounting_in_the_news/)

Alcohol round 2

A reader and I had a face-to-face discussion a few months back regarding alcohol use on campus which led to my initial post regarding alcohol use/abuse by university students. I received a follow up email from that reader this week after they had a conversation with a relative currently attending Harvard.  Apparently alcohol is not an issue on Harvard, or at least for this particular university student.  The student is too busy with their academic studies and the legal drinking age in Massachusetts is 21 so they can’t legally drink even if they had the time.  I was glad to hear that but a bit skeptical.  Family morals and expectations probably have more to do with this individual story than any other factor.  That is great news for this particular student (and their family) but not necessarily great news for the rest of the higher education system.

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Earlier in the week I read a news article about a new study that is going to study alcohol usage for 2,000 university students for the next five years.  In particular, the research will examine the impact on actual consumption that perceived levels of peer drinking has.  That is, does a student drink more if they think their peers are drinking more?  I suspect the answer is yes but I look forward to hearing the definitive answer.

I was trying to reconcile my preconceptions about drinking and peer-drinking with the one piece of data from Harvard.  Is Harvard really all that different?  Perhaps.  On average Harvard may have more intelligent, wealthier, more driven students than other institutions.  On the other hand, George W attended Harvard so maybe Harvard students really aren’t that much different.  Does Harvard have an issue with alcohol abuse?  A quick search on Google found the following: Harvard’s Alcohol Amnesty Policy.  Harvard thinks that students are more likely to seek help for alcohol related issues if Harvard promises to NOT contact the student’s parents, hence the “amnesty”.  Perhaps Harvard believes that its students are mature enough or bright enough to use alcohol sparingly.  Apparently not.  Alcohol related patients at the university infirmary have increased by 43% in the last two years.  And those are years when George W wasn’t even on campus!

Finally, while Googling around this evening I found this tragic story: Alcohol Poisoning Suspected Cause of Clemson Student’s Death.  Very sad.  I met a number of Clemson staff a month ago at a conference.  All the staff I met were very involved in student life services beyond just academic stuff and I know they will be feeling the pain.  I was very impressed with what I saw going on at Clemson – great student support, great residential programs, excellent faculty-student interactions, lots of effort to ensure students had the necessary support to succeed.  Despite all that help, this student still made some poor choices last Friday night.

I’m not sure why this topic keeps rolling around my brain.  I have no expectations of prohibition but it does seem to be heavily centered around education.  Education of the risks of alcohol.  If universities do not take responsibility for the education or at least ensure more effort to provide educational opportunities for students about alcohol then I’m not really sure we should label ourselves Institutions of Higher Education.  I would love for some students to leave some comments on this.  Why do you binge drink?  It is costly and makes you feel crappy the next day.  What are the upsides?

Alcohol on Campus

As I promised in an earlier post, I am writing about alcohol use/abuse by students (and I suppose others) on campus.  Its been over a month since I said I would write about this so why now?  There have been a number of unfortunate events coinciding with the start of the new academic year including at my own institution.  For instance, a student from Calgary apparently died of alcohol abuse at Acadia last week, at least two students died at Queen’s University over the past year as a result of alcohol related issues, and most recently there was a major bar fight and stabbing on the sleepy UBC Okanagan campus just two days ago.  On a more public scale but off-campus, it doesn’t take much detective work to realize that the Vancouver riots were fuelled by alcohol.  Generally there are two views on this: (1) its just kids growing up, we all went through it, or (2) this totally inappropriate for any institution of higher learning.  I will self-declare as being fully, 100%, in the second category.  There may be a line where we cross into “no-fun territory” or “the constitution gives me the right to drink on my own time” etc, but we’re no where close to that now.

First question that must be asked: Are we satisfied with the current situation or do we consider it acceptable?  Let me spin that question around just a bit, do kids need to get completely inebriated once or twice or every weekend to “grow up”?  In my opinion, no.  100% no.  The type of thinking that considers that a feasible or viable option must be expelled from our society.  Do I need to hit my thumb with a hammer every day so that I comprehend pain and “grow up”?  Of course not.  If we define “growing up” as becoming mature thinkers capable of contributing positively to society and tackling some of the great issues in the world, I fail to see how binge drinking can even be considered a necessary condition.

Second question: What can we do to avoid these tragedies?  First we need to educate the students on the issues with binge drinking.  I’m not talking about sitting 500 frosh down and lecturing them, we’re educators for crying out loud, surely we can find a way to help students learn about the issues and ramifications of alcohol abuse that doesn’t involve their repeated first-hand experience.  Second, we MUST provide alternative activities for students that don’t involve alcohol.  I suspect, although I don’t have evidence, that many students drink because their peers drink, its THE thing to do an a Friday night, and there’s no great alternatives.  Let’s take the lead on this, be innovative and help these students out.  Third, universities must help create a sense of unity and community within the student body.  Students must learn tolerance and respect and treat each other, staff and faculty as family.  My family is in no way perfect, I verbally fought with my siblings and parents but we didn’t stab each other or cut each other with broken beer bottles.

Finally, if you are a faculty member as I am, take the lead.  Ask your Dean, Provost, and President what your campus is doing to ensure the campus is a safe and healthy learning environment for everyone.  Don’t accept hand waving answers.  And share your initiatives and proposals.  We’re all in this together.  I’m sure there is some great research and reading on this, its on my list for the winter break.  If you know of anything please post as a comment and I’ll start building my reading list.

That’s my rant for today.  To the parents affected by the events I mentioned in this post, my deepest condolences and I apologize for not doing more to protect your kids.