I had a discussion a few months ago with a government official who was convinced she knew what was wrong with universities. “They have no discipline,” she said. “They just go out and create new programs all the time with no thought as to what the cost implications are or what the labour market implications are, and so costs just keep going up and up.”
I told her she was only half right. It’s absolutely true that universities have no discipline when it comes to academic programs, but the problem really isn’t on the creation side. When universities start a new program, it has to go through a process where enrolment is projected, labour market uptake estimated, and all that jazz. And yes, there is a certain amount of creativity and outright bullshit in these numbers since no one really knows how to estimate this stuff in a cost-effective manner. But basically, these things have a decent track record: they hit their enrolment targets often enough that they haven’t fallen into disrepute.
The problem is that these enrolment targets aren’t hit exclusively by attracting new students to the institution; there is always some cannibalization of students from existing programs involved. Therefore, while each new program might be successful in its own terms, these programs were succeeding only by making every other program in the faculty slightly less effective.
And here’s where the lack of discipline comes in. At some point, institutions need to sit back and take a look at existing programs, and be able to prune them judiciously. When resources – particularly staffing resources – are static, if you keep trying to pile on new programs without getting rid of the old ones, all you get are a lot of weak programs (not to mention more courses staffed by sessionals).
And here’s one of the biggest, dirtiest secrets of academics: they suck at letting things go. They are hoarders; nothing, once approved by Senate, must ever be taken away. Prioritization exercises? Never! After all, something might be found not to be a priority.
Getting rid of academic programs is one of the purest examples of Mancur Olson’s Collective Action problem. Getting rid of any given program will hurt a few people a lot, while the majority will barely feel the benefits. The advantage in terms of political mobilization always goes to the side who perceive themselves to have the most at stake, and so they are very often able to mobilize support and stop the cuts (this point is made very well in Peter Eckel’s excellent book Changing Course: Making the Hard Decisions to Eliminate Academic Programs). But over time, if you can never cut any programs, then the collective does start to hurt, because of the cumulative effect of wasted resources.
Of course, Olson’s theory also gives us a clue as to how to solve this problem: there need to be stronger incentives within institutions for people to support program closures. One way to do that would be to introduce a one in, one out rule. That is, every time Senate endorses a new program, it has to cut one somewhere else. Such a rule would mean that pretty much anyone in the university who has an ambition to open a program at some point would have an incentive, if not to support specific program closures, then at least to support an effective process for identifying weak programs.
Might be worth a try, anyway. Because this hoarding habit really needs to stop.