Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Universities

September 15

Innovation Policy: Are Universities Part of the Problem?

We’re talking a lot about Innovation in Canada these days. Especially in universities, where innovation policy is seen as a new cash funnel. I would like to suggest that this attitude on the part of universities is precisely part of Canada’s problem when it comes to Innovation.

Here’s the basic issue: innovation – the kind that expands the economy – is something that firms do. They take ideas from here and there and put them together to create new processes or services that fill a market need in a way that creates value (there’s public sector innovation too but the “creating value” thing is a bit trickier, so we’ll leave that aside for now while acknowledging it exists and matters a lot).

Among the many places the ideas come from are higher education institutions (HEIs). Not necessarily local HEIs: ideas travel, so Toronto firms can grab ideas from universities in Texas, Tromso or Tianjin as well as U of T. The extent to which they will focus on ideas generated locally has to do not only with the quality of the local ideas, but also with the way the ideas get propagated locally. Institutions whose faculty are active and involved in local innovation networks will tend to see their ideas picked up more often that those who do not, partly because contact with local firms generates “better” scientific questions and partly because they will have more people paying attention to their work.

But ideas are really only a part of what matters in innovation. Does the business climate encourage firms to innovate? What’s the structure of business taxation? What kind of management and worker skill base exists? What regulations impede or encourage innovation? What barriers to competition and new entrants exist? What kind of venture capital is available? Does government procurement work in favour of or against new products or services? All of this matters in terms of helping to set firms’ priorities and set it on a more-innovative or less-innovative path.

The problem is, all this stuff is boring to politicians and in some cases, requires directly attacking entrenched interests (in Canada, this specifically has to do with protectionism in agriculture telecoms and banking). It requires years of discipline and trade-offs and politicians hate discipline and trade-offs. If only there were some other way of talking about innovation that didn’t require such sacrifice.

And here’s where universities step in to enable bad policies. They write about how innovation is “really” about the scientific process. How it’s “really” about high tech industries of the future and hey, look at all these shiny labs we have in Canada, wouldn’t it be great if we had more? And then all of a sudden “innovation” isn’t about “innovation” anymore, it’s about spending money on STEM research at universities and writing cheques to tech companies (or possibly to real estate companies to mediate a lot of co-working spaces for startups). Which as far as I can tell seems to be how Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains genuinely approaches his file.

Think I’m exaggerating? Check out this article from Universities Canada’s Paul Davidson about innovation in which the role of firms is not mentioned at all except insofar as they are not handing enough money to universities. Now, I get it: Paul’s a lobbyist and he’s arguing his members’ case for public support, which is what he is paid to do. But what comes across from that article is a sense that for Universities , l’Innovation c’est nous. Which, as statements of innovation policy go, is almost Nickelbackian in its levels of wrongness.

I don’t think this is a universal view among universities, by the way. I note SFU President Andrew Petter’s recent article in the same issue of Policy magazine which I think is much clearer in noting that universities are only part of the solution and even then, universities have to get better at integrating with local innovation networks. And of courses colleges, by putting themselves at the more applied end of the spectrum, are inherently aware that their role is as an adjunct to firms.

Universities are a part – a crucial part, even – of innovation systems. But they are a small crucial part. Innovation Policy is not (or should not be, anyway) code for “industrial policy in sci/tech things universities are good at”. It is (or should be) about firms, not universities. And we all need to remember that.

September 08

Trends in Canadian University Finance

New income and expenditure data on Canadian universities came out over the summer courtesy of StatsCan and our friends over at the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO), so today it’s time to check in on what the latest financial trends.

In 2014-15, income at Canadian Universities was, overall, a record 35.5 Billion dollars (just above 2% of GDP, if you’re counting).  That’s up 1% in real terms over the previous year and up 5% on five years ago (2009-10).  But the composition of that income is changing.  Total government income is down 2% in real terms from last year and down 8% from 2009-10 (the latter being somewhat exaggerated because the base year included a lot of money from the 2009 budget stimulus via the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP).  Income from student fees, on the other hand, was up 5% on the previous year and 32% up from 2009-10, again taking inflation into account.  That doesn’t mean that fee levels increased that much; this is aggregate income so part (maybe even most) of this change comes from changes in domestic and (more pertinently) international enrollment.

Figure 1: Change in Real Income by Source, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10


Let’s turn to a look at expenditures by type.  Salary mass for academic staff actually fell slightly last year after inflation, but over five years the overall salary budget for academics is up by 10%, after inflation. Again, this isn’t what’s happening to average salaries, it’s what’s happening to aggregate salaries, so it’s partially a function of average and partially a function of staff numbers.  For non-academic salaries, it’s an 11% increase over five years.  And yes, you’re reading that right: labour costs have risen 10% while income has risen only 5%.  Again, that’s exaggerated a bit by fluctuations in incoming funds for capital expenditures, but it’s probably not sustainable in the long term.  Because other elements of the budget are increasing quickly too: for instance, scholarship expenditures rose by 21% over that period to stand at over $1.87 billion.

 Figure 2: Change in Real Expenditures by Type, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10


Finally, let’s take a look at expenditures by function within the operating budget.  Operating budgets as a whole are actually up quite a bit – 14% (this is partially offset by falls in the capital and research budgets).  Here’s how the money gets used:

 Figure 3 – Division of Canadian Universities’ Operating Budgets by Expenditure Function, 2014-15


As you’d expect and hope, the lion’s share (57%) of the operating budget goes to instruction and non-sponsored research.  Most of the rest goes on three categories: administration, student services, and physical plant.  Figure 4 shows how growth in each of these areas has differed.

Figure 4: Change in Real Expenditures by Function, Canadian Universities, 2014-15 vs 2013-14 and 2009-10


If you look at the “big four” spending areas, instructional and admin costs rose at roughly the same rate over fiver years (14% vs. 15%), while student services rose more quickly (21%) and physical plant less so (7%, with a 4% drop in the last year).  Non-credit instruction is up very strongly for reasons I cannot quite fathom.  But look at computing costs (up 31%) and “External Relations” (which includes Government Relations, alumni relations/fundraising and other marketing costs – up 27%).

In sum: i) government funding is down in real dollars but student income has replaced that income and more besides, so that institutional budgets are still increasing at inflation +1% per year; ii) compensation budgets (academic and non-academic alike) are rising faster than income, which is a problem for the medium-term and iii) there are a lot of small-ish budget items that are growing much more quickly than salaries (scholarships, computing, student services etc.) but given that compensation is 60% of the total budget, that’s still where the majority of the restraint needs to happen.

May 27

Three Unconnected Thoughts on PSE and Aboriginal Peoples

1)      Changing Disciplines

In the last five years or so, I’ve seen a real change in the way Aboriginal students are moving through the country’s PSE system.  For a whole number of reasons, aboriginal students were traditionally concentrated either in humanities disciplines like history and sociology, or they were in disciplines which led to careers in social services or direct band employment (child care, police foundations, education, nursing).  STEM and Business fields simply weren’t in the picture.  That’s changed substantially over the past few years.  Aboriginally-focussed business programs are popping up all over the place.  Increasingly, we are seeing enrolments in STEM (though there is still a long way to go).  So what’s changed?

A couple of things, I think.  First, the demographics of First Nations students are changing.   Time was, a very high proportion of aboriginal students came in after quite a period out of school, typically in their mid-20s.  Nowadays, we are seeing a lot more students transition at an earlier age, direct from high school (and more often than not from urban, mainstream high schools).  On average, this background prepares them better for PSE than graduation from on-reserve schools. Hence, they tend to be applying for and getting access to more selective courses.

But this begs the question: what’s behind this shift at the secondary level?  A lot of it is demographics.  A greater proportion of First Nations youth are living in urban areas, and so on average they have better access to better schooling.  Drop-out rates are still high and there is much to be done to improve inner-city schools, but conditional on completing high school First Nations graduates seem about as prepared as mainstream students to deal with the rigors of PSE.

Another important factor here is the aging of the last generation to have experienced residential schools.  Parents pass on their views of education to their children; unsurprisingly, those who had been through residential schools weren’t always inclined to encourage their children to invest a lot of their identity in schooling. On top of poverty, racism, etc., this probably had a lot to do with low aboriginal participation rates until fairly recently.  But most residential schools closed in the 1970s; so most of the kids now coming through the system are the grandchildren of the last residential schools generation.  Soon it will be the great-grandchildren.  The bad memories of residential schools are by no means gone, but they are of less relevance in terms of pre-disposition to invest in schooling, and that matters.

Finally, there’s the money issue.  Institutions are finding it a whole lot easier now to raise funds for aboriginal scholarships or other focussed initiatives than they used to.  And that certainly improves the quality of the aboriginal student experience, which probably contributes to improved completion rates.

2)  Money

People are rightly getting peeved at the federal Government for having not come through on its promise to add $50 million in funding for First Nations education through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP).  I expect that’s a promise the Liberals will try to fulfill next year or the year after (there may be a delay as the Feds ponder the implications of the Daniels decision which puts Metis Canadians on the same legal footing as First Nations vis-à-vis the federal government.

But what people haven’t remarked on is the huge boost in funding that First Nations students could receive should they sign up for federal and provincial students aid.  In Ontario, virtually all on-reserve students will be eligible for $9,000 in grants through the new Ontario Student Grant: elsewhere, they will be eligible for at least $3,000 through the improved Canada Student Grant.  If First Nations make their students apply for this aid before applying to their bands for PSSSP, then all their students will have at least some base amount of funding.  That would mean bands wouldn’t need to give as much to each individual student, and could use freed-up funds to provide aid to more students, thus alleviating the well-known waiting list problem.  But that would take a bit of organization to make sure band educational counselors know how to help their students navigate the federal/provincial aid system.  Something our friends at Aboriginal Affairs might want to think about.

3) Truth & Reconciliation

Since the release of Justice (now Senator) Murray Sinclair’s report last year, some Canadian post-secondary institutions have made some extremely useful gestures towards reconciliation, like requiring all students to take  at least one class in aboriginal culture or history.  Which is great, except it’s not actually what Sinclair asked for.  Rather, he asked that students in specific professional programs (i.e. health and law) be required to take courses in Aboriginal health and law, respectively.  As I said at the time I thought this was a stretch and that prestigious law programs would resist this (quietly and passive aggressively, of course).

It’s been a year now – and to my knowledge (everybody please correct me if I am wrong) – no university law or medical school has adopted this proposal.  I wonder how long before this becomes an issue?

May 17

How Rich are China’s Universities?

Last week, Mike Gow at the Daxue blog linked to some interesting data recently published by the Chinese government with respect to the budgets of the country’s top universities.  It only covers those institutions which report to the Ministry of Education (and therefore misses some important institutions like the University of Science and Technology of China (which reports to the Chinese Academy of Sciences) and the Harbin Institute of Technology (which reports to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology).  It suggests that, at the very top of the Chinese system, there are some jaw-dropping amounts of money being spent.

Let’s focus just on the C9 schools (the Chinese equivalent of the U-15/Russell Group/AAU/G-8, or at least on the seven for which data was provided).  Here is the data for 2015-16:

Table 1: Income & Enrollments of Top Chinese Universities


*From Wikipedia.  I know, I know, but it’s all I had.

**Using the Big Mac Index to covert from RMB to USD at rate of 3.57 to 1

Now, the jaw-droppingness of these figures depends a lot on whether you think it makes more sense to compare institutional buying power based on market exchange rates or based on purchasing power parity (PPP).  For universities, which pay salaries in local currency but compete for staff and pay for journals and scientific journals in an international market, there are some good arguments either way.  It should also be noted that it’s not 100% clear what is and is not in these figures.  Does Tsinghua’s figure include the holding companies that own shares in all of Tsinghua’s spin-off businesses?  Unclear.  My guess would be that it includes income from those businesses but not the businesses themselves – but it’s hard to know for sure.

Comparing these numbers to those of top American universities is somewhat fraught, because of the way American universities account for income from their teaching hospitals.  Thus Duke reports about twice as much income per student as Harvard because one includes medical billings and the other does not; if you correct for this, the two institutions are about the same.  Correcting as best I can for teaching-hospital income, and excluding Rockefeller University because it doesn’t really have any students and excluding Caltech (which has about $1 million/student in revenue) because it’s such an outliers and would break my nice graph, the top five in the US and the top seven in China looks like this:

Figure 1: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 US universities, in USD at PPP


The basic point here is that Peking and Tsinghua are – on a PPP basis at least, and excluding medical income on the US side without being sure that it is excluded on the Chinese side – at least roughly in the same league as Harvard, though not quite in the same league as MIT, Stanford and Johns Hopkins.  The rest of the Chinese universities trail a bit: the poorest of these, Xi’an Jiao Tong, would be at about the level of Berkeley if you use a PPP comparison, and Florida State if you use the exchange rate.

Now let’s move to the UK, where the top five universities in terms of dollars per student are Cambridge, Imperial College, University College London, Oxford and Edinburgh.    The comparison changes quite a bit depending on whether or not one uses PPP or exchange rates.  On a PPP basis, Tsinghua and Peking would lead all UK universities; on an exchange-rate basis, they would be 5th and 6th – that is, behind Cambridge, UCL, ICL and Oxford but still ahead of Edinburgh.  Either way it suggests that, financially at least, the top Chinese universities are on a similar playing field as the top UK ones.

Figure 2: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 UK universities, in USD at Exchange and PPP


Next, let’s go to Canada.  Here are the top five Canadian schools compared with the top seven Chinese ones.  On a PPP basis, UBC is the only Canadian university which would crack the top seven in China.  But on an exchange-rate basis, all of our top five would come ahead of Nanjing and close to Fudan.

Figure 3: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 Canadian universities, in USD at Exchange and PPP


Finally, let’s take a look at Australia, where universities are frankly much less well-funded than elsewhere.  On a PPP basis, even the weakest of the C9 – Xi’an Jiao Tong – would come ahead of the best-funded Australian institutions (Australian National University).  On an exchange-rate basis, ANU would rise ahead of Xi’an Jiao Tong and Nanjing, but would still lag behind the other Chinese institutions, by a factor of 2:1 in the case of Peking and Tsunghua.

Figure 4: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 Australian universities, in USD at Exchange & PPP


The bottom-line is that while most Chinese universities are still a ways away from the top international standards in terms of income, expenditure, research base, etc., at the very top it seems that the C9 institutions are now very much in the global elite as far as funding is concerned.  They are not yet there as far as research output is concerned – only Peking and Tsinghua make the Times Higher Top 100 and none make the Shanghai Academic Rankings of World Universities – but that’s only a matter of time.  Rankings (and prestige) are a result of cumulative effort and financing.  Another decade with these kinds of numbers will make a very big difference indeed.

April 27

Comparing Per-Student University Expenditures by Category (2)

This is part 2 of a two-parter on how Canadian universities spend their money.  All the stuff about what data I’m using, caveats thereto, etc., are available in yesterday’s post.  If you missed yesterday, go catch up here.

First, two small mea culpas from yesterday.  First, due to a cut/paste error, part of the data on student services that went out yesterday was slightly off, but has now been corrected on the website.  Second, I neglected to mention that the student services figures included money from operating budgets for grants and bursaries, which accounts for some of the wide differences between institutions.  Sorry.

OK, onwards.  Let’s focus first on the two spending categories we didn’t take a look at yesterday; namely, “Administration” (meaning, mostly, central administration) and “External Relations” (meaning mostly government relations and fund raising).  This is shown below in table 1.

Table 1: Per-Student Expenditure, Selected Categories of Non-Academic Activity


A couple of obvious points here:

  • Compared to the spending categories we looked at yesterday, the gaps between 75th and 25th percentile are smaller (in other areas, the gap was usually 2:1; in these categories it is closer to 3:2).  This suggests that on the whole, institutional spending patterns vary less in these central admin functions that they do in areas like libraries and ICT.
  • On the other hand, the institutions at the top and bottom of the range seem to be much more outliers.  At the high-cost end, there are probably two things going on.   First, some tasks are pretty common and have to be done no matter what the size of the university, so small institutions  tend to look expensive on a per-student basis (for example: a $400,000 p.a President at a school with 40,000 students is $10/student; a $200,000 p.a President at a university with 2,000 students is $100/student).  Second, recall that the “central administration” category does vary a bit from school-to-school, and so some of this may be about oddities in reporting.
  • Most of the schools that spend small on “external relations” are part of the UQ system.   Basically, when you’re so close to being 100% government-funded and controlled, you don’t lobby or look for external money, hence your costs go down.

Figure 2 puts together all the data from the different expenditure categories.

Table 2: Per-Student Expenditure, all non-academic categories


Three major points here:

  • The per-student costs at very small universities is really stratospheric.  Universities clearly have some fixed base costs that require large student numbers in order to make them bearable.  From a public policy perspective, that either makes it important to ensure institutions are a minimum size, or that funding formulas provide a base amount for fixed costs in addition to per-student funding.
  • Keeping a rein on non-academic costs matters.  The difference in costs between an institution at the 75th percentile of overall non-academic costs and a 25th percentile institution is $2,950 or pretty close to half a year’s worth of average tuition at a Canadian university.  That’s a lot of money which could be used for other purposes (or cut in order to provide cheaper education, though that wouldn’t be my choice.
  • Actually, it’s even more than that.  If an institution could emulate the spending of the 25th percentile institution in each individual category – that is, a library cost like UQAM’s ($509/student), an ICT cost like Carleton’s ($508/student), physical plant costs like Laval’s ($1,331/student), Student Services costs like Winnipeg’s ($958/student), administration costs like St. Thomas’ ($1,604/student) and external relations’ costs like Manitoba’s ($285/student), you’d have total non-academic costs of just $5,195 – that is, $3,800 less than the 75th percentile institution and $2,200 less than the median one.

But of course, one might protest: does anyone really want to be in the 25th percentile of spending on this stuff?  Don’t great universities spend a lot of money on this stuff?  Isn’t spending more money on things like Libraries and ICTs a sign of quality?

Well, maybe.  To some extent, you get what you pay for.  But welcome to the central paradox of university management: you can’t simultaneously demand prudence and excellence if the only indicator of greatness is how much money you spend.  It’s why outcome metrics matter; and why those who oppose them, in the end, simply promote waste.

April 26

Comparing Per-Student University Expenditures by Category (1)

Just for giggles the other day, I took a look at Canadian university expenditures in 2013-14 using (as usual) the CAUBO/Statscan Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey.  I looked at operating expenditures by category.  Then I normalized them per FTE student.  And I got some very weird results which I thought I would share with y’all.

What I am going to do in this series is show you the results for the main categories of expenditure which are “non-academic”.  I am not going to look at the categories known as “instruction and non-sponsored research” or “non-credit instruction”, because those vary significantly according to the mix of disciplines offered at an institution.  Instead, today I am going to restrict myself just to the categories “Library”, “Computing”, “Physical plant”, and “Student Services”; tomorrow I will  look at the more complicated cases of “Administration” (meaning central administration), and “External Relations” (meaning both government/public affairs and fundraising/alumni relations).

(btw – the data is from 2011-12 because we haven’t updated our PSIS file lately.  The numbers presented here are a bit dated, but the basic picture hasn’t changed.)

The following table shows the key elements of the comparison.  The intriguing thing here is that institutions actually seem to have very different patterns of spending.  In all four categories, the difference in per-student spending between an institution at the 75th percentile is twice what it is at the 25th percentile.  I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that institutions are using different strategies of non-academic spending to meet their mission – it’s not clear that these spending variations are occurring in a conscious manner – but it is certainly true that institutions are exhibiting quite different patterns of spending.

ottsyd 20160425-W

So, a variety of thoughts here:

  • The universities with the lowest-spend in Libraries are all small-ish, new-ish (post-1992) institutions; those with the highest spending are more of a mix.
  • Athabasca and RRU near the top of the ICT spending charts is not a surprise; what is a little weird is seeing Université du Québec en Outaouais in top spot.  Also, why is U of T near the bottom?  ICT is one of those fields in the FIUC survey which is prone to bad comparisons (some institutions stick a lot of the salary costs related to ICT in their central admin numbers or occasionally in their faculty expenditures, if staff are based in the faculty – a quirk of the way the data is compiled), so it might be that.  On the other hand, expenditures on ICT might just scale a lot better.
  • The student services numbers are fascinating: 4 of the 5 top-spending institutions are in Nova Scotia; 4 of the 5 lowest-spending institutions (and 7 of the top 10) are in Quebec.
  • The physical plant numbers are the hardest to interpret because in a sense these are in some ways legacies.  NSCAD owns some historic properties with high upkeep and doesn’t have a lot of students and so has high per-student costs.  Kwantlen is a relatively new institution and therefore doesn’t need to spend a lot on upkeep (or heat – institutions in the lower mainland have a big cost advantage because of the climate)

There are a couple of ways to look at these numbers overall.  There’s the competitive-bidding aspect: some will look at these numbers and say “why isn’t our institution spending that much?  Gotta keep up with the Joneses!”  But there’s an efficiency angle, too.  Those institutions spending at the 75th quartile and above – what are they getting for their money that other institutions are not?

Maybe the most interesting case is Libraries.  A lot of big Ontario universities have very low library costs: Guelph $473/student, Waterloo $591, McMaster $688, Ottawa $723, Western $749, all of which are below the national average.  You might think the big difference is in the collections budget – and it’s true those are lower, in part because there is a lot more collections-sharing between institutions in Ontario than is possible in places like Saskatoon or St. John’s, which don’t have nearby neighbours.  But the biggest single cost in Libraries is salaries, which makes up 45-65% of any university library’s budget (higher in Quebec).  The real difference between these institutions is therefore staffing.  So do users notice the difference?  If so, which users and how is the difference felt?

More tomorrow.


April 07

Innovation to Watch at the University of Sydney

Australian universities seem to do “Big Change” a lot better than universities elsewhere.  A few years ago, the University of Melbourne radically overhauled its entire curriculum in the space of about two years partly to create a more North American-like distinction between undergraduate and professional degrees and partly to reduce degree clutter by winnowing the number of different degrees from over a hundred to just six.  (For a refresher, I wrote about this back here).

If you read press reports about the University of Sydney’s new strategic plan (read the full document here,  it’s completely worth it) you might think Sydney is just aping Melbourne: it’s culling of degrees from 120 to 20, mostly by wiping out five-year “double degrees”, and also reducing the number of faculties from 16 to 6.

But the reduction in the number of degrees is actually a much less interesting story than what Sydney plans to do in terms of its curriculum.  From 2018, every program is to have two courses in third-year: one to integrate and apply disciplinary skills and another to apply disciplinary knowledge and skills in context.  Every degree will culminate in a final-year project or practicum.  Every program will have cultural competency embedded within it, and support for international studies will rise so that (hopefully) the proportion of students with an international experience will rise from 19% to 50%.  A strong framework to support career transitions will also be set up. Involving both curricular and co-curricular efforts

Here’s the most interesting bit: And an entirely new “open learning environment” will be created within the university, which will provide short, on-demand courses in areas such as entrepreneurship, ethics, project management, leadership (you know, all the employability-related skills universities usually claim students pick up by osmosis).  Some of these courses will be online, while some will be blended online/workshop; some will be non-credit and some will be small-credit. 

Did I mention they are going to develop a university-wide approach to measuring how desired graduate qualities such as disciplinary depth, interdisciplinary effectiveness, communication ability and cultural competence have been attained?  Yes, really.

What makes this kind of change deeply impressive – and potentially highly significant – is that it is not coming from a second-tier, ambitious institution trying to catch attention by doing something new.  This is the country’s oldest university.  This is a big, old prestigious institution taking big serious steps to actually change the undergraduate degree structure in order to provide students with better skills without sacrificing academic rigour.  It’s a research university that cares enough about undergraduate learning outcomes that it will measure them in some way beyond graduation rates and immediate employment rates. 

This is cutting edge stuff.  It may even be a world first.  We should all hope it is not the last; this kind of approach needs to spread quickly.

April 01

“Slow Professors”

I read with interest this piece in University Affairs about “The Slow Professor”, which is the name of a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber – English professors from Brock and Queen’s, respectively – who think that professors need to push back against the hecticness of the modern academy.  To wit:

“The authors offer insights on how to manage teaching, research and collegiality in an era when more professors feel ‘beleaguered, managed, frantic, stressed and demoralized’ as they juggle the increasingly complex expectations of students, the administration, colleagues – and themselves. ‘Distractedness and fragmentation characterize contemporary academic life,’ they write. Today’s professors, they argue, need to slow down, devote more time to ‘doing nothing,’ and enjoy more pleasure in their research and teaching. It’s time, they say, ‘to take back the intellectual life of the university.’”

Hmm.  Hmmmmm.

I don’t doubt that the majority of Canadian professors work hard – very hard indeed, actually.  Not all, of course; but on the whole, absolutely.  In fact, some data from the 2007-08 Changing Academic Profession Survey suggested that Canadian professors might actually work the longest hours of any professors in the world.  And that’s OK, given that the Canadian professoriate is also the best-paid in the world.   Maybe the two are linked.  Not directly of course; nobody actually correlates pay to effort in Canadian higher education.  But overall, maybe we’re getting a good deal: high-paid, hard-working professors. Nothing wrong with that.

So, how to interpret a demand for less work such as that contained in the Berg-Seeber piece?

The most cynical answer I suppose, would be: hey, look, two profs who want to work less for the same pay?  But this is perhaps too churlish.  The authors do after all make a less-is-more argument – that they will be better academics if they have more downtime.  One could imagine a deal that trades time for performance.  That is, say we could come up with a performance metric for professors that lets them reduce their hours, provided they hit particular targets.  But of course the metricization of higher education is something else the authors rail against, so that’s probably not an option, either.

This leaves a third possibility: why not let professors trade salary for time?  If you want to be on a 40-hour/week track instead of a 55-hour/week track, do it – but take a pay cut.  Sounds fair to me.  Of course, the only way to implement this is to have a system in which management actually pays attention to workload in a systematic way.  We don’t have that here in Canada – but other places do (notably Australia).  Maybe it’s time we moved in that direction?

One final point.  The authors locate the source of stress in the academy as the university’s “corporatization”.  This is a hard claim to evaluate without knowing which of the myriad definitions of “corporatization” they are using, but let me simply suggest an alternative explanation. Maybe, just maybe, the academic rat-race is a product of really bright, driven people pushing themselves even harder when they are surrounded by other bright, driven people.  That is, it’s an emergent property of academia itself, rather than something imposed from without by mean old administrators.

March 28

Metaphors and Similes

I recently came across this little blogpost from the UK bemoaning the fact that the Vice-Chancellor of Imperial College described professors as “like small business owners”.  The poster then went on to wonder: “if professors are small businesses, what kind of micro-state is the contemporary university?”

Interesting question.  The thing is, on our side of the pond at least, the idea that a university is something less than the sum of its parts has been pretty common for awhile now.  It was Robert Hutchins,  influential President of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1945, who once described the university as “a series of separate schools and departments held together by a central heating system”.  This was an astute observation about the nature of universities and their relationships with the disciplines that inhabited them.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, universities slowly ate the sciences.  It was a pretty good trade: by joining the university system, scientists got other people to pay for the development and upkeep of their laboratories, whilst universities benefitted from the prestige of having scientists on payroll.  But there was a certain price exacted.  Universities stopped being small, unified institutions teaching liberal arts.  They had to share space in the minds of their staff with various “invisible colleges”, the global networks of scientists that form the backbone of what we call “the disciplines”.   By the early twentieth-century, the local branches of these invisible colleges were asserting primacy over the organizations to which they legally belonged.

But then, gradually, even the bonds of discipline weakened.  WWII and its aftermath created the research university, and that changed academic priorities.  By the 1960s, Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, described the university as a “federation of independent academic entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking”.  That is: not only did universities have a weak centre, but now even the disciplines were not particularly an organizing principle.

More recently, in the wake of the internal credit-mill fraud at UNC, Kevin Carey of the New American Foundation called that university a “holding company that provides shared marketing, finance, and physical plant services for a group of autonomous departments, which are in turn holding companies for autonomous scholars who teach as they please”.  That’s actually a sort of mid-point between the Hutchins and Kerr positions, restoring some importance to departments/disciplines while still making clear the essentially independent nature of the professoriate.

There are other formulations of this basic thought – professors expect steady paycheques but otherwise act like independent contractors, etc.  Indeed, nudging us ever closer to the idea of professor-as-entrepreneur, innovation theorist Henry Etzkowitz made the point over a decade ago that research groups within a university have “firm-like qualities, especially under conditions in which research funding is awarded on a competitive basis”.

I’m not sure how many people would argue with Etkowitz on this point (I wouldn’t, anyway).  But the extension of the company metaphor to individual professors rather than “research groups”, as the Imperial VC did, seems to put some people’s teeth on edge.  Mostly, I think this is a field-of-study thing.  Professors in bio-medical sciences, physical sciences, and engineering probably “get” the business metaphor more than others because running a lab is a lot like running a small business: bills to pay, payroll to meet, this kind of thing.  Sure, the object is to make discoveries rather than profit, but the specific day-to-day managerial activities are recognizably similar.

Professors elsewhere in the university might kind of dig the “independent contractors” metaphor (because independence is cool even if there’s little or no money attached), but they’d resist the “small business” label because it comes with implications of “balancing books” and “paying for oneself”.  One could argue – as many in the life sciences might – that this is nonsense, because it’s always understood that the institution is kicking in money, at least as far as one’s own salary is concerned (true in Canada anyway – not so much in the US or UK).  But still, arts and social sciences profs tend to be very frightened of bogeymen like this, so they run like hell when it confronts them.

Of course, we don’t have to stick with business metaphors.  Some prefer musical ones (a good university is like jazz, on no account should it be thought of as a symphony orchestra, etc.).  But whatever metaphor one chooses, the point is to convey that universities are “loosely coupled” entities (possibly too loose in some cases, but that’s as may be).

Just don’t on any account suggest that “loosely coupled” has any financial implication whatsoever. That way a lot of unhappy and vocal professors lie.

March 02

Faculty Power and the Expansion of Administration

There was an interesting little op-ed in the Vancouver Sun the other day, to the effect that faculty are “waking up”, “realizing their voices matter”, and taking collective action to “effect substantive change at UBC”.  You can read it, here.

I think it is a fantastic piece.  It’s great when people in a community realise they have the power to change things, and begin acting together to effect that change.  My only question is: what was stopping them from acting on this before?

The answer, if we’re honest, is “nothing”, and the authors admit as much.  Canadian Senates – or academic councils, or General Faculty Council, or whatever they are called in your neck of the woods –  have an enormous amount of power to drive institutional policy; at the faculty level, things differ a bit from place-to-place, but there is no doubt that at most universities, the collective professoriate is able to develop and drive policy, if it wants to.

But the plain simple fact of the matter is that at most universities, most of the time, they don’t want to.  There was a time, when universities were much smaller, cheaper, and less complex, when academic staff could take on a lot of non-academic work as part of their day jobs, and universities could run more or less without professional non-academic staff.  But with massification and the growing importance of research in academia, staying engaged in senior levels of academic governance is a real struggle for many.  So they do what they are supposed to do: delegate to professionals, and hope these people do a good job.

And for the most part, they do.  Or at least they do it well enough that there is no concerted movement by professors to turn back the clock and put more academic oversight into the system.  It’s tacitly understood that a university that doesn’t hire good communications professionals, good fundraisers, and good government relations people is likely to be a smaller, poorer university.  We might bemoan this fact a bit, but everyone knows it’s true.  And so by and large, the expansion of administration over the last 30 years has tacitly been endorsed by faculty, because otherwise they are the ones who would have to do that work.  And, y’know, thanks but no thanks.

Where administration becomes an issue is when those professionals are no longer seen to be of good value: that is, they are paid too much relative to their value, or when they are perceived to put their own interests ahead of those of the academic enterprise.  And while rare, this does happen every once in awhile.  And when it does, there is nothing to stop academics re-taking the wheel.  Which is as it should be.

So in sum, it isn’t a matter of faculty “re-taking” power in universities.  Faculty have always had power in universities; they’ve just chosen for the sake of convenience not to use it very much.  If this is changing, and faulty  want to exercise power to a greater extent, as the UBC editorialists suggests, that’s perfectly A-OK.  Just remember that everything has trade-offs.

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