A reader’s comment on my earlier blog post Monoply-bashing in the New Economy starting me ranting on and on about the ironic nature of “higher education” institutions that present one face to the public but manage their operations in a totally different way (OMG — I’m ranting again…!) and I soon realized that I probably should just make it a blog post instead… so here it is…
My father once told me “..if all you have is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail.”
For me, “business” is my hammer so of course everything looks like business to me — when I look at our educational system, or our health care system, or our public administration system, I see a “business” lurking there and I generally analyze it the same way I would analyze and reflect on a “real” business.
What about our post-secondary education systems, and universities specifically? In a university, instead of maximizing profit they are focused on maximizing their source of funding. Now in the Canadian system generally, there are monies that are paid by the province for each student and some general operating funds available, but far and away the biggest pot of monies available to universities are through competing for research grants. Hence our universities have grown up over the decades with a focus on “research” over “education” — you’ve heard about the standard admonishment to professors to “publish or perish”; I’ve never heard anyone say “if you don’t improve your teaching ratings, you are out of here..!”
Now, what is the natural outcome of this? Well, if I was running a university with the current set of rules in place, I would look to hire a bunch of PhD’s that are passionate about researching things and that are developing stars in their fields. In turn, I would promote these researchers widely and use their names and reputations to win research grants.
Now, the price they have to pay as researchers is that they also have to teach students… unfortunately many, many of them don’t really like educating and it certainly isn’t their passion or the main reason they became professors — it is merely the “cost of doing business” to them.
Of course, the other thing I would do to maximize my operating funds is open the doors as widely as I could justify to fill my university with new students, and hence maximize my total per-student funding. Now the price I will pay is that I will have undergraduate class sizes of many hundreds of people and lots of overcrowding of existing resources, however I will have driven up my annual operating funds (at least for that year).
So, what do I get? I get hundreds of people stuffed into rooms, being taught in ways that are highly efficient for the harried professor who HAS to teach a class or two before they can get back to their beloved research work. Unfortunately this set-up is generally highly ineffective for the poor student who strains to hear the professor at the front of the classroom, 30 rows below…
Of course, we don’t really advertise this fact to the students (or their parents) who are paying 10′s of 1,000′s of dollars for an “education”. At the university administration side, the focus is on driving revenue through pursuing research, selling naming rights to buildings, alumni fund-raising, etc. Not a lot of focus on improving the “product” of education. So of course they aren’t really focused on the rapidly evolving knowledge-economy transformations that are bubbling away all around them.
Where does all of this eventually lead us? Well, if things don’t change somewhat dramatically, my expectation is that the university’s systemic lack of focus on one of their key products (useful quality education), their protectionist bent of hiding behind their monopoly (only accredited universities can grant degrees) and the expectations of the markets they serve (students, parents, and the modern economy looking for an alert, agile, skilled workforce) will all ultimately lead to their demise.
Better buggie-whips — now available from your neighbourhood university.