Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: teaching vs. research

September 23

Revisiting BS

Seems I hit a nerve last week when I wrote about Teaching v. Research. Between the emails and the twitter chat afterwards, I can safely say I’ve never received as much feedback on a piece as I did on that one.  As a result, I thought I should respond to a few of the key lines of discussion.

Interestingly, few critics seemed to have picked up on the fact that I was attacking the hypocrisy and sanctimony around the teaching/research discussion; instead, most tried to find ways to justify modern teaching loads.  Some missed the point entirely, protesting that the reason profs were teaching less was because of increased expectations around research.  This, of course, was precisely my point.  I wasn’t accusing people of slacking – I was suggesting that priorities and activities had (stealthily) changed.

Others suggested that the reduced teaching load was an illusion, (e.g. “but our classes are so much bigger now!”)  But class size and teaching loads are linked; if profs taught more, class sizes would go down.   Teaching time may not be a strict function of classroom hours, but neither is it a simple function of students taught.  Two classes of sixty students take up less time than three classes of forty.  Maybe not 33% less time, but a substantial amount nonetheless.

The most substantive critiques were around graduate teaching, and how that should be counted.  I admit to glossing-over this issue, so let’s talk about it here.  Part of the problem is that there are many kinds of graduate teaching. In the sciences, it can be indistinguishable from research; in the Humanities, it’s quite the opposite.  In some disciplines, Master’s level seminars are about the easiest thing to prepare for, though as graduate class sizes grow to undergraduate levels, the workload distinction varies, too.  And on top of that is doctoral supervision, which can be extremely demanding (though standards vary).

We know virtually nothing about graduate-level teaching loads, though they have presumably increased along with graduate enrolments, and are probably distributed in a very uneven way.  This leads to another question: is it perhaps the case that in addition to a substitution effect on undergraduate teaching, overall average workloads are also increasing?  That seems at least plausible to me.

Bottom line, though: we don’t know enough about workloads.  Faculty and administrations have kept this data hidden, even from themselves, for decades.  It’s time for more transparency.  Not only will it reduce BS, but it will increase accountability for how universities use their most important asset: professors’ time.

September 18

Cutting the BS on Teaching and Research

Sometimes people ask me: “what would I change in higher education, if I could”? My answer varies, but right now my fondest wish is for everyone to just cut the BS around the teaching/research balance.

Whenever a debate on teaching and research starts, there’s always people who either intimate how “unfortunate” it is that we have to talk about trade-offs, or people who claim that any deviation from the current trade-off means the death of the academic.  But this is nonsense.  There are only twenty-four hours in a day; trade-offs between teaching and research are always being made.  The issue is not teaching v. research, but where the balance is.  Twenty-five years ago, it was perfectly normal for professors to teach five courses a year.  Now, even at mid-ranking comprehensives, the idea of 3/2 is enough to cause paroxysms.  Just because it’s a good idea for professors to combine research and teaching doesn’t mean that any specific combination of research and teaching is right.

Even if we take it as read that, “engagement with research” makes you a better teacher (something which is much less empirically established than many assume), it’s clearly not equally the case in all disciplines.  Researchers in some disciplines – Physics and Math come to mind – are so far removed from the understanding of your average undergraduate that it’s probably a waste of everyone’s time to put them together in a classroom.  Conversely, language courses are almost never taught by people engaging in research on language acquisition, because it’s unnecessary.  Indeed, first and second year courses in many disciplines probably don’t even need researchers teaching them – a fact institutions acknowledge every day because they keep handing them to non-tenure track faculty.

Over the past 25 years, teaching norms at large universities went from five courses per year to four, to even three; that is, full-time teaching time went down by 20-40%.  The academy did this without ever engaging the public about whether that was the right way to spend public and student dollars.  It’s therefore worth debating, in light of current fiscal pressures, whether the current (historically unprecedented) trade-off between research and teaching is the right one.  We once had good research universities with many professors teaching five courses a year; there’s no reason we couldn’t do so again.  Shutting discussions down – as CAUT Executive Director, Jim Turk, recently did – by equating any change in the balance as an attempt to turn universities into high school isn’t just unhelpful and obnoxious: it’s BS.

And so I say: no more BS.  Let’s all be grownups and talk reasonably about what balance makes sense, not just for professors, but for students and the public as well.

June 13

What if Higher Education Subsidies Were Transparent?

 An interesting little exercise in budget analysis:

There are just under 5600 humanities professors at Canadian universities, and 7600 in the social sciences (excluding law, which is another 600 or so).  On average, these people make about $108,000/year (slightly higher in social sciences, slightly lower in humanities).  Add another 25% on that for payroll taxes, health, and pension, and the direct costs of employing these folks is about $135,000 per year.  That comes out to about $1.85 billion in total.

Now, what do we pay these people to do, exactly?  Well, according to the standard formula (which I recognize does not apply to everyone), 40% of their time is for teaching, 40% of their time is for research, and 20% is for the ever-nebulous concept of “service”.  So, while the transparent subsidies to humanities and social science research – the ones paid through SSHRC – amount to about $700 million, the non-transparent subsidies embedded in academic salaries is, all told, another $750 million on top of that.

When you start dividing out these salary-embedded research amounts by field of study, it’s kind of fascinating, particularly in the humanities.  $33 million each year for research in philosophy; $58 million for history; $57 million for English.  That adds up: nearly $300 million for humanities-based research. That’s almost as much as we spend on transfers to First Nations for post-secondary education each year.

I am not particularly concerned here about whether this amount of spending is desirable, or whether it offers value-for-money or anything like that; I’m sure there would be good arguments both ways.  What does concern me is this: nobody in this country ever stood up and voted for $33 million of public money to be spent on research in Philosophy, and nor would they because nobody thinks that what Philosophy professors are actually paid to do.

When Canadian universities quietly – oh so quietly – began dropping faculty teaching loads about fifteen years ago, from 3/3 and 3/2 to 2/2 and 2/1, implicitly we were shifting compensation – paying more for research and less for teaching.  In some fields – mainly in the sciences –that made eminent good sense.  In others – such as the humanities – it’s not clear that made any sense at all.  After all, the ultimate defense of the humanities is “we teach kids to learn how to think”.  Fair enough: so why spend all that money paying humanities professors not to teach?

We never had a proper debate about any of this, mainly because we are not transparent about what services we are actually buying when we hire a professor.  The quality of debates on higher education would improve enormously if we did.

December 07

A Zinger from HEQCO

To One Yonge Street, and the offices of the redoubtable Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), who yesterday released a small publication with the unassuming name, The Productivity of the Ontario Public Postsecondary.  The title may be a little on the soporific side, but the contents are anything but.

There are some real gems in here.  Did you know that 39% of all granting council funding went to Quebec?  OK, the grants on average are somewhat smaller than they are in Ontario, but that’s still an incredible number.  It’s not as though, on average, their publication records are better than anyone else’s (they’re not – see Table 7, which we, here at HESA, contributed to the report).  By what quirk of the funding council system does this happen?  What’s the secret to their success?  Inquiring minds want to know if this is replicable elsewhere?

But for my money, the really explosive section is Table 9, which takes data from four collaborating institutions (Guelph, Queen’s, Laurier, and York) in order to look at staff workloads.  Specifically, workloads were analyzed according to whether a professor had any “research output” (defined – rather generously, I think – as having held any external grant, or had a publication in the 2010-2011 academic year).  Here’s what they found:

A couple of points here:  First, the comparison for science isn’t especially interesting since there are almost no non-research-active faculty there (over 80% of them hold an NSERC grant at any given time).  In the SSHRC fields it’s a different story – it’s closer to 50-50.  But, apparently, the ones who are research-active are not bunking off teaching to do their research; in fact, they only teach a half-course less per year, on average, than those who are non-research-active.  Perhaps the better question here is, “what exactly are all those non-research-active profs doing with their time”?

Obviously, there are some possible ways this result could be innocuous.  It could be that the non-research-active profs spend more time devoted to service, or that the line between research-active and non-research-active isn’t especially clear-cut in humanities and social sciences (if publication is mostly in the form of books, it’s easy to go a year, or more, without a new one).   You’d have to do a lot more digging before jumping to any definitive conclusions.

But just the fact that HEQCO got four universities to go even this far with their data is a big deal.   It’s the biggest move anyone’s made so far to start engaging publicly on the issue of faculty productivity.  So kudos to HEQCO and the four institutions that participated.  The sector is going to need a lot more of this if it’s going to adjust to the new fiscal reality.

October 27

It Was 20 Years Ago Today*

…that the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education was released.

In 1990, in the midst of deficit crises, national unity crises, etc., AUCC members decided that the only way to focus public attention on education was to appoint an independent commissioner, Dr. Stuart Smith, to shine a spotlight on their own activities. It worked, but probably not in the way they intended.

The first few pages of the report deal in the banalities used by every university president since Jesus was born: essentially, “the system is strong and healthy but could use more money.” That taken care of, Smith then took a vicious left turn from the script and laid into universities for neglecting their teaching mission and spending too much time on scientific research.

To say university presidents felt betrayed would be an understatement. They were not amused by the rather strong implication that their research mission was interfering with their teaching mission (now where have we heard that before?), and weren’t shy about saying so.

Reading the report today, one is struck both by what has changed and what hasn’t. It’s hard not to read the recommendations around credit transfer, the lack of data on faculty teaching loads or the imbalance of incentives around teaching and research and think “plus ça change.” But on the other hand, one can also read the recommendations around access, student assistance, teaching-track faculty research into higher education and performance indicators and think, “actually, we’ve come a really long way.”

(My favourite recommendation is the one suggesting that all institutions be required to publish the percentage of their budget devoted to helping faculty improve teaching or fund curricular innovation. Yeah it’s unworkable in practice, but it would be deliciously cruel – and probably highly motivational – to have institutions publish numbers that need to be measured in hundredths of percentage points.)

So, lots of progress, but frankly not enough. No one can read the section on teaching and learning and seriously think that the situation has improved in the last twenty years. It’s fair to say that Smith wasn’t providing a balanced picture of universities and their activities in his report. But I think it’s equally fair to say that wasn’t his brief.

Many people speak on behalf of research. Distressingly few, including student leaders, speak to the substance of education itself. The Smith Commission was by some distance the best manifesto for undergraduate education this country has ever produced. We could use another one like it soon.

*I think. It’s hard to tell about things that came out in the pre-Internet era.

October 20

What is Research, Anyway?

As we’ve seen repeatedly over the past few weeks, there’s a constituency out there that wants to see greater differentiation of institutions in terms of research-intensiveness. In the vernacular, this comes across as advocating “teaching institutions” to complement “research institutions,” something which occasionally gets incorporated into government policy as it did in British Columbia vis-à-vis the new universities.

This kind of talk, of course, makes much of the professoriate go bananas. And they fire back with good stuff like Stephen Saideman, did, saying that universities aren’t about research vs. teaching, they’re about research and teaching.

But here’s the thing: do we really think both sides mean the same thing when they use the word “research”?

When professors pull out the “my life as a scholar means nothing without research” line, they aren’t necessarily trying to say they all need large research budgets and hordes of grad students and tri-council grants or their lives will be meaningless (well, some might be saying that, but they’re a minority). What they are saying is that research as a process of searching for new knowledge or construction of new meaning – which can be done through low-budget activities like editing journals, writing reviews, etc. – is inherent in the notion of being a scholar, and that institutions where the teaching isn’t done by scholarly people aren’t worthy of being allowed to grant degrees. Fair enough.

On the flip side, when governments say “we want teaching-only institutions,” they’re not saying they wish to ban professors from doing scholarly reading or engaging with colleagues at colloquia, etc. No one’s going to tell professors to give back their SSHRC grants or to stop writing articles. What they are saying is (a) that they don’t want to stump up big bucks for research infrastructure and (b) they would prefer a system that more closely resembles the U.S. public university system where at flagship institutions, professors essentially teach two courses a semester but everywhere else, they teach four. Also fair enough – unless one is prepared to argue that every non-flagship U.S. institution isn’t a “real university” because they don’t focus enough on research.

“Research” encompasses a wide variety of activities of varying intensities and time commitments. If we’re going to talk more about the balance between teaching and research, we need to stop making absolute statements about research and start treating the subject with the nuance it deserves.

October 19

Ducking the Issue

Man, did last week’s Globe editorial on reforming higher education get the bien pensants’ knickers in a knot, or what?

Constance Adamson of OCUFA took the predictable “everything would be fine if only there was more money” line. Over at Maclean’s, Todd Pettigrew made a passionate defence of research and teaching being inextricably entwined, largely echoing a piece from the previous week by McGill’s Stephen Saideman, who argued that universities aren’t teaching vs. research but teaching and research.

Methinks some people doth protest too much.

Let’s take it as read that universities are intrinsically about both teaching and research; there’s still an enormous amount of room for discussion about their relative importance. It may be cute to say that choosing between the two is a false dichotomy but in the real world profs make trade-offs: when they increase their research activity, they tend to spend less time teaching. This shouldn’t be controversial. It’s just math.

Unfortunately, obfuscating the trade-offs between research and teaching is a stock in trade of academia. My particular favourite is the old chestnut about research vs. teaching being a false dichotomy because “the best teachers are often the best researchers.” I’m being restrained when I say that this, as an argument, is a bunch of roadapples. As research has consistently shown, the relationship between the two is zero. Being a good researcher has no effect on the likelihood of being a good teacher and vice versa.

Look, there’s lots to quibble with in the Globe editorial, not least of which is the ludicrous insouciance with which it treats the concept of quality measurement. But most of its basic points are factually correct: by and large, parents and taxpayers think the main purpose of universities is to teach undergraduates and prepare them for careers (broadly defined). Canadian academics are, in fact, the most highly paid in the world outside the Ivy League and Saudi Arabia. They are also demonstrably doing less teaching than they used to, ostensibly in order to produce more research.

Anyone who can’t understand why that combination of facts might provoke at least some questioning about value for money really needs to get out more.

One of the sources of miscommunication here is that the seemingly simple term “research” is actually a very contested term which means enormously different things to different people. More on this tomorrow.