Challenging the Costs of University

The  Economist recently published another piece critical of the costs of higher education: How to make college cheaper: Better management would allow American universities to do more with less. Based on research done by Vance Fried, of Oklahoma State University (and part of the Centre for College Affordability and Productivity), four solutions are proposed. Let’s have a look at each of them (and remember, while this is a US centric analysis, much of this pertains to Ontario where I ply my trade):

“First, separate the funding of teaching and research. Research is a public good, he [Fried] reasoned, but there is no reason why undergraduates should pay for it”

This is a big one. Universities, with considerable justification in my mind, laud the link between teaching and research. They do inform each other. However, given a reward system that focuses on research (despite efforts to change this), there is a strong argument that teaching subsidizes research. The recent book, Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario (Ian Clark, Greg Moran, Michael Skolnik and David Trick), makes this point clearly: the economics and effectiveness of continuing with a homogenous research university model is unsustainable given the current and future challenges. They advocate teaching institutions as distinct from research institutions.

“Second, increase the student-teacher ratio. Business and law schools achieve good results with big classes. Why not other colleges? Mr Fried thinks that universities will be able to mix some small classes with big ones even if they have fewer teachers.”

Student-faculty ratio is not determinative of quality. However, student-faculty interaction is an important measure of learning effectiveness; the greater the formal contact, and especially informal contact, the more effective the learning environment and the learning outcomes. The issue is pedagogical change, not class size. And we know what works (see Taking stock : research on teaching and learning in higher education). We do need to make the learning process more cost effective (not a phrase you hear much during pedagogical discussions) but the focus must move beyond the low hanging fruit of class size to a more substantive discussion of learning. Innovative pedagogy, new technologies, and ubiquitous access to information can profoundly change this dynamic.

“Third, eliminate or consolidate programmes that attract few students.”

A bit of a no-brainer. We (the higher education sector) are very poor at this. And it is indefensible. We trot out all sorts of academic arguments for sustaining low enrollment courses and programs but it doesn’t pass the smell test. This is a very valid criticism.

“Fourth, puncture administrative bloat. The cost of administration per student soared by 61% in real terms between 1993 and 2007.”

This one hits close to home (as one of those administrators). While I can’t quantify it, my own experience is that during this period the regulatory and compliance requirements for universities (legal, fiscal, etc) have become overwhelming and increasingly expensive. Government requirements (some justified, some not) have been a big factor in driving up administrative costs. Not trying to pass the buck (sorry for the bad pun) just recognizing the higher ed ecology in Ontario and the need for all parties to talk about this impact like adults.

Critiques of higher education is a growth industry these days. Much more to talk about in future posts.






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