Higher Education Strategy Associates

Ideas to Irritate People

The other day I was reading Sydney: The Making of a Public University by Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherington, when I came across this fantastic idea.

Back in the 1850s, the University of Sydney (which was formed at more or less the same time as our own University of Toronto, and on a very similar model) was trying to figure out how to attract quality academic staff from the mother country.  The problem of course was how to provide them with a decent pay package when they still didn’t really have a good sense of how many students they were going to have (since most income came from student fees, low enrolment meant low income which could be trouble if you over-promised a set salary to a professor).  So they came up with a solution.  Professors were given a low base pay – a few hundred pounds a year – and then given the right to a share (usually 50%) of the fees generated by their lectures.

How awesome is that?

Imagine instituting that rule at universities today.  At a stroke, it wolud reverse all the perverse incentives which currently exist in the way we teach at universities.  Teachers would clamour for undergraduate courses over graduate ones, lower-year courses over upper-year ones, auditoriums over seminars.  In fact, the problem would be that the rewards of the big courses would be so huge that departments would have to make drastic changes to share the wealth.  No more 1000-student courses: to share the wealth properly, we’ll need to make 10 100-person courses, or maybe 20 50-student courses.  Sure, upper-year students might lose out on their small courses, but that’ll be a small price to pay for avoiding the big auditoriums in lower years.

Wait, I have more!

What if you used a similar idea with doctoral students?  Not with respect to enrolments, but completions.  In the Netherlands for instance, the government pays universities something like 80,000 euros per doctorate, but only for doctorates that are actually awarded. Universities, in turn, sometimes charge a fee to a doctoral students but return part or all of it when s/he completes the degree, just to make sure the student has skin in the game.  Why not attach similar kinds of carrots and sticks to timely completion of a doctoral degree?  Not at an individual level – some delayed/failed doctoral degrees have more to do with the student than the supervisor – but collectively.  So if department X fell below a 60% timely completion rate (for instance) the Dean or the Provost could stop approving requests for conference travel.  Below 40%?  Start denying requests for sabbaticals.  I think the short-term effect would be to concentrate departmental-level thinking about how best to collectively ensure better doctoral-level supervision sharp.

OK, now I don’t really believe institutions should do either of these things.  But I do think that incentives matter.  And there are too few incentives within institutions to put student outcomes first.  And the question really is: why is that?  And what can be done to align staff incentives with student needs?

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4 Responses to Ideas to Irritate People

  1. William Barker says:

    See also Adam Smith at the end of The Wealth of Nations: no more endowed chairs with empty classrooms; professors to be remunerated in the old medieval way, directly by students.

  2. Brier says:

    I think this would effectively put an end to the professors students hate but find 5 to 10 years after the fact that they taught them better than most. Those professors are avoided like the plague and then the students always come back to say thank you years later.

    Also, if you’ve ever had to deal with the sobbing aftermath of a student encouraged to take a class they didn’t need, you also might agree that this is a terrible idea – and this happens without incentives.

    In other words: suitability irritated. I received fair warning (and enjoyed the read). I could get behind a percentage going to a research fund for the faculty associations…

  3. Nello Angerilli says:

    New Zealand also provides Ph.D. completion awards to the university. They vary in value and tend to incentivize participation in “priority” disciplines, particularly by under-represented groups. The financial value of the awards causes everyone to pay attention to them and their intended outcomes. The approach works particularly well for those in the priority disciplines (deciding on priorities is of course contentious) and encourages completion of the degree across the board. Supervisors are likely to be more engaged in supervision as a result.

  4. Sean Lawrence says:

    Well, in the first case, being paid by number of students wanting to take one’s class incentivizes a race to the bottom in terms of quality, likelihood of passing, etc. It’s bad enough to be judged on customer satisfaction surveys.

    In the second case, this would be a good reason to just ditch doctoral programs altogether, or to pressure externals for pass lousy dissertations. It could mean the end of academia as we know it.

    So like Brier above, I’m suitably annoyed.

    More to the point, I think your examples point to precisely why we can’t align staff incentives with student needs. Every incentive is, at least potentially, perverse, especially if what we really want to measure isn’t directly quantifiable. Soviet central planning was full of perverse incentives, and they were measuring much more straightforward things (at least in principle) than erudition, liberal education, deepening of one’s mind, cultural awareness, critical nous, etc.

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