Monopoly-bashing Redux: university edition

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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.

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6 thoughts on “Monopoly-bashing Redux: university edition

    1. Thanks for your comment. I suspect that smaller colleges are able to provide a somewhat better quality product by focusing their efforts a lot more and only offering a fraction of the programs that larger colleges provide. Essentially they are probably playing a different “game”, much as in the airline business the standard models are large hub-and-spoke players vs. small regional point-to-point carriers. Completely different economic models apply…

  1. I agree 100%. The thing I don’t get is that it seems to be getting worse rather than better – emphasis on the quality of education I mean – I remember back in the eighties when I was a university student we were voicing the same thoughts. We weren’t actually analyzing the situation from a business point of view but all the students knew alot of the profs were just there for the research not the teaching. I personally don’t believe universities should be influenced by or focused on business concerns. However, that is the sad reality of the world today. Everything revolves around business and money. Having said that, there must be a way where universities can hire quality “teaching” profs and productive “research” profs and have reasonable class sizes while at the same time maintaining a sustainable business model. With all of the intelligent business and university people around it shouldn’t be that difficult. I think the problem might be a lack of will and folks looking out for only their own immediate interests.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Devan. In my mind of thinking about things, we can have any outcome we want from any institution — it all comes down to how we measure things and what we reward and compensate for. So if the people running the universities are rewarded for (that is funded, compensated, promoted, etc.) driving research at the sake of teaching, that is what the overall system will deliver — despite public hand wringing, promises to focus on other things, etc. I may be a bit jaded but I absolutely buy into the idea that “what gets measured (and rewarded) gets managed (and focused on)”.

  2. Thanks for the well-ranted response to my comment, Tim! This post makes me sad, though, because everything you point out is true and has a lot of inertia keeping it that way.

    My own view is that it may partially be the “status” associated with universities that might contribute to the problem. See, good technical colleges are fantastic for all the reasons you use to bag out universities above – smaller classes, better learning, teachers who give a hoot – but without the research they don’t have the status of being at the top of their fields’ “games.” They’re not synthesizing genes or conceptualizing machines or theorizing about psychopathic tendencies – instead they are running the diagnostics on those genes, using the new machine or carrying out social programs to rehabilitate. Someone thinks it up on grant money, someone else does it.

    It is the age-old misalignment between knowing stuff and doing stuff. Why is knowing stuff so much more important/rewarded/honoured than doing stuff? Because not everyone can ‘think the right way’ or ‘learn the right way’ to know stuff. So the people who know stuff get to be the elite, and the people that do stuff get to be the workers.

    Seems somewhat archaic in the context of our newer methods of knowledge transfer, doesn’t it? Especially since I know a more and more ‘doing stuff’ people who (by their own volition, drive and ability to access information), think way more critically about life and business than those who are highly trained and ‘know stuff.’

    Oops – sorry for the novella!

    1. Hi Aurian — love your comments; they always drive me to have a still deeper think about things and help me build better insights and arguments. Interesting things about most “elites”; they live inside their own self-constructed and self-contained self-referential systems, and the only way inside is to play their game their way. Until recently.

      I think what we are seeing with our instant communication global technologies and open-source, collaborative problem-solving frameworks is the slow (and sometimes not so slow) erosion of all these structured closed systems, from business ecosystems (music, publishing, media, etc.) to national dictatorships…. we’re in for a very interesting ride over the next couple of decades….

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