« Ontario's Economic Future? | Main | Regression toward the mean »

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The best book I've read that helped me to understand university politics:

Morality and Expediency - The Folklore of Academic Politics by F.G. Bailey

(http://www.amazon.com/Morality-Expediency-Folklore-Academic-Politics/dp/0202309223)

in 1986, I talked to a former federal minister who had just entered academia. She said she just couldn't understand university politics. I gave her a copy. I hope it helped since she went on to become a Dean.

H. John Relton

Thanks, looks like perfect summer reading!

From my own experience, this sounds right to me.

A fairly small percentage of university academics wants to do admin. A fairly small percentage would be good at admin. The intersection of those two sets is even smaller. I think we get most of them. I have generally been positively impressed by the people I have seen in admin.

VP Finance and Admin is nowadays the only position that is normally (I think) filled by someone from outside academia. (In the olden days it was normally filled by an academic). (Maybe deans of business schools too?) I'm not sure if it would be good or bad to bring in a few more outsiders.

I think (not sure) that it is more common nowadays to bring in admin people from other universities (outside-insiders) than it was in the past.

Nick - "I think (not sure) that it is more common nowadays to bring in admin people from other universities (outside-insiders) than it was in the past"

That's my impression too, and I think there are two reasons for that. First, to the extent that I'm correct that academic administrators inevitably alienate people, outsiders have the advantage of not having to alienate their friends. Also, having alienated people, it's kind of nice to move on. Second, given that the best administrators are not always the best academics, and that there is a shortage of people willing and able to do administration, admin is one of the few ways for a non-star academic to achieve job mobility across institutions, esp. upwards job mobility.

I have no experience in academia. In the private sector (where I have much experience), administrators seem to deal with these problems by reducing expectations of inclusive and transparent processes. I've done it myself. It just takes too much time and effort to make everyone feel good. Stuff needs doing, so you make a decision and move on. Don't like it? Too bad. Find another job. People don't fuss too much about it because it's the process everyone expects. It would cause huge problems if people expected inclusive and transparent processes and got something else.

Perhaps, apart from cost savings, this issue is why Universities favour hiring contract teachers to tenured profs. Tenured profs are in a better position to make a nuisance of themselves.

Patrick - as my boss advises me: smile sweetly, move on. Though some managers are better than others at making people feel good.

Faculty bark, the provost bites: http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/cgi-bin/tomprof/enewsletter.php?msgno=1312

Jeremy, thanks for this, I really enjoyed it, Frances

"But tell professors that they have to include learning objectives in their course outlines and measure students' learning outcomes without alienating them? Good luck with that."

That was no problem where I am. We were handed a stock list of 8 learning objectives and asked to report which ones our course emphasises. Then we were asked to define specific competencies under those objects which are measured in assignments or tests. This was executed for every course. It was annoying and a little tedious, but it happened and is required.

It was also useless. No courses were changed.

Squeeky Wheel - "It was also useless. No courses were changed."

Do you think there is anything that academic administrators could have done to ensure that courses actually change? E.g. what would have happened if there had been more administrative control over course content (e.g. preventing profs from evaluating students using nothing but multiple choice exams)? Would a more transparent and inclusive process have generated more faculty buy-in?

If there is nothing academic administrators could have done to make things change, why not?

"Governments and the general public want to know that public funding and tuition is money well spent; they want to know what students are actually learning at university."

This the problem right here. Universities should not be public or subsidized. Privatize post secondary education. There is no conceivable externality in post secondary education that requires government intervention. The public and governments do not reach the conclusion that university money is well spent based on some cost benefit analysis other than the number of potential votes. It has nothing to do with learning. Middle class Canadians consider "access" (read subsidized access) to university a near human right and governments oblige.

The hard administration decisions between, as you put it, the Department of Useless Studies and the Department of Skills and Training become much, much easier if we use the price mechanism. When people don't have to pay the true costs of their choices we get wicked distortions. Seriously, would the psychology student enrollment be as high as it is at Carleton if students had to pay the true cost? Subsidized post secondary education destroys and poisons the ability of the administration to make optimal choices, but the government rejoices in its demonstrable transfer to middle class voters.

As Thomas Sowell put it:

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”

Avon: we are already halfway there. Ballpark revenue figures for Carleton: student fees around 55%; government vouchers 40%; other stuff like donations etc 5%. (I am ignoring ancillaries which are priced at cost-recovery). Students could spend their vouchers and fees taking Engineering instead of psych. And actually, since you get a much bigger voucher to do engineering than psych, the government is already subsidising engineering relative to psych.

If we went to full privatisation, we would simply replace "Governments and the general public" with "Donors, students and their parents". Private firms have shareholders too.

Frances: we could have administrators give exams. We could also have them giving the courses. At some point in a complex society, we must have some confidence in the competence and professional integrity of our colleagues. And understand that the managers won't be better than those they oversee. The managerialist ideological mistake, proven wrong in both the USSR and the US. Chris Dillow can be far more entertaining than me on that subject.
Avon: There are complementatrities between, let's say engineers and technicians. Full cost (with attendant debt) is viewed (rightly) as a major obstacle for first-generation students. We can have full privatisation. We get HArveard, a bank that gives courses to banker's children.

"Full cost (with attendant debt) is viewed (rightly) as a major obstacle for first-generation students."

Which is pretty weak reason for subsidizing the sons and daughters of the upper-classes who are badly over-represented (at least in proportion to their percentage of the popultion) in post-secondary institutions. Moreover, it ignores the possibility that public subsidies for post-secondary education might be used to pay for higher wages and salaries for the suppliers of post-secondary education, rather than lower tuition for students. If governments were to end subsidies for post-secondary education would the response of universities be to increase tuition (increase prices) or to negotiate lower salaries (or heavier workloads) from their staff (increase productivity). It's not neccesarily clear that, in the long run, the second response wouldn't dominate.

Moreover, if access is a concern, surely the answer is to provide subsidies to students, rather than suppliers. Provide income based grants to students rather than blanket subsidies to institutions. If the issue is sticker shock, that strikes me as a far more efficient way of dealing with it. Make universities (or colleges) compete on price and quality, which bumping the income of poor students to fund it as needed.

Mind you, I disagree with Avon's comment, in that the market for post-secondary education does not work particularly well. In part that's because 18 year olds are not known for their deliberative decision making (just think, how many people end up with degrees in Useless Studies, because that meant they could get their Fridays off). In part it's because, not surprisingly, the consumers (students) know jack all about what a particular degree is worth and the people who might be in a position to know what a degree is worth (unviersities, faculty) have no particular incentive to tell them. Let's face it, you can get better information about customer satisfaction from a ShamWOW informercial than you do from your typical university.

That being said, over time people do learn. Until recently, US law schools, even fourth rate US law schools, were cranking out graduates while charging students upwards of $50-60K a year (of whom only slightly more than half actually end up in jobs requiring law degrees and many of those end up struggling for decades to repay their loans - suggesting that the law degree was a truly lousy investment). But as horror stories of law school graduates repaying 6-figure loans on minimum wage have hit the papers, law school enrolment (especially at some of the crappier schools have started to decline).

Bob Smith: "Mind you, I disagree with Avon's comment, in that the market for post-secondary education does not work particularly well. In part that's because 18 year olds are not known for their deliberative decision making (just think, how many people end up with degrees in Useless Studies, because that meant they could get their Fridays off)."

The market for post secondary education will work as well as it does for anything else. An 18 year old does not make the decision on what to study at university independent of his/her family - especially if the family has to pay for it. We talk of individuals in society, but we really mean individual families.

Nick: If we went to full privatisation, we would simply replace "Governments and the general public" with "Donors, students and their parents". Private firms have shareholders too.

Really? If it's just a matter of who we label as owners, perhaps governments should own everything. When people are insulated from the costs of their decisions, allocations become suboptimal - education included. The gains to post secondary education are enjoyed privately and thus should be paid for privately.

Jacques: We get HArveard, a bank that gives courses to banker's children.

That's just ignorant - and I mean that in the technical definition of the word. Look up Sidney Coleman, Howard Georgi, and Lisa Randall - Harvard is far more useful to humanity than you might imagine. A great many of Harvard's alumni (and faculty) did not come from financially privileged backgrounds. Harvard uses it's endowment to help ensure access by talented students. The problem with subsidized post secondary education is that it drives up costs, it is a transfer from the poor to the middle/upper class (where the majority of the votes are), it cripples the administration from making politically unpopular decisions, and it reduces the quality of the student body.

Bob - thanks for commenting. It would be really interesting to know how (if at all) the composition of the student body at U of T and Osgoode law schools has changed after the large increases in university tuition.

And where the increased tuition revenues have gone - e.g. to higher salaries, better buildings, smaller transfers from U of T and York undergrads in 400-seat classrooms taught by contract instructors, services e.g. yoga that directly improve the student experience (all law schools offer free yoga).

"surely the answer is to provide subsidies to students, rather than suppliers"

To an economists' way of thinking, it doesn't matter whether the subsidy goes to students or suppliers. Who captures the subsidy/the effect on the subsidy on price and output is determined entirely by the structure of the market, not whether the subsidy nominally goes to students or suppliers. Sure income contingent subsidies have some advantages over non-income contingent ones, but they have their own disadvantages as well. E.g. they're hard to manage, e.g. when is the test based on the student's own income rather than the parental income? How is the income of divorced parents assessed? If support is in the form of income contingent loans, what about the incentive effects - the loans will act like a tax on earnings.

Jacques Rene - there's an awful lot to be said for having administrators spend time in the classroom. I hope that I don't forget how a regular faculty member views the world.

"To an economists' way of thinking, it doesn't matter whether the subsidy goes to students or suppliers."

OK, this is loony. Economics teaches us that there is a huge difference - one involves choice and the other doesn't (or only restricted choice). Privatize the provision, allow free entry, and then either provide cash transfers or the second best alternative, vouchers, to those who you think need the charity. (And post secondary education requires neither.) Pareto efficiency can only be maintained if people can trade their endowments - then we can let the market structure (in the case of cash transfers, the structure of the entire economy) determine how the consumer/producer surplus gets split. The subsidy to the producer provides an excellent rent seeking incentive to the incumbents, who will look to limit which producers should be allowed to receive the subsidy in the first place. Welcome to union provided public education.

If you still think it doesn't matter who receives the subsidy, get rid of HST/GST credits along with all other income support for the poor and give it all to WalMart, and the Dollar Store. I'm sure they will pass on *most* of the surplus to the poor consumer. Firmly put, if you want to help person A, then help person A directly, not through B in some roundabout way.

Wow! Thirty eight years since Friedman won the Nobel prize and still ...

Avon: Tax Incidence. This is why it's best not to skip first year econ. Yes, you get different results if you tax/subsidise red apples rather than tax/subsidise all apples, but that is not what Frances is talking about here.

"Do you think there is anything that academic administrators could have done to ensure that courses actually change? E.g. what would have happened if there had been more administrative control over course content (e.g. preventing profs from evaluating students using nothing but multiple choice exams)? Would a more transparent and inclusive process have generated more faculty buy-in?"

Yes and maybe.

In the School's (capital S as in School of X) first few years, the Dean was very active in reviewing courses. My analysis was that when many faculty get together and the Dean says "this is important" then faculty will change their courses. I think the fact that I would get to push on other people's courses made it a lot more palatable to accept their input as well.

This no longer happens. The Dean no longer sits in course reviews and the Associate Dean is not pushy enough to demand an ice cream. Now the research faculty are very clearly evaluated on research only and not on "you listen to peer advice". So yes I think admin could force change if they make it part of the faculty evaluation by trading it off against other time expenditures (more time changing the course means less time doing research, and admin will have to accept that). Having lots of transparency about why this is the right change certainly helps with the buy in.

Squeeky Wheel - that's really interesting.

What you're describing sounds like a transparent and inclusive process - and also a lot of work for people. And there's the rub: people want transparency and inclusion, but they don't want the hard work that this entails.

"the Associate Dean is not pushy enough to demand an ice cream" - we really do have the best commentators of any economics blog here at WCI....

Nick, I understand tax incidence (see my early comments on the Liberal's new pension plan on Flogging a Dead Horse Part III). I also know that it's voodoo economics to claim that you are subsidizing the consumer when you subsidize the producer. An individual consumer may not want anything from the producer - the subsidy does not help him. If you want to help poor consumers through transfers because they don't have enough, fine, increase their endowments, then let them trade, but don't subsidize producers. Take the Welfare Theorems seriously. The Pareto efficient equilibria ex post endowment transfers to consumers vs producers will not in general be the same.

The worst part of the producer subsidies is the public choice aspect - you create a huge rent seeking incentive. The producer stands to gain tremendously by restricting the subsidy. The subsidy becomes a weapon to prevent entry. The costs of the restrictions are diffuse, on the backs of the consumers you are trying to help, the gains concentrate into the hands of the incumbents.

"To an economists' way of thinking, it doesn't matter whether the subsidy goes to students or suppliers. Who captures the subsidy/the effect on the subsidy on price and output is determined entirely by the structure of the market, not whether the subsidy nominally goes to students or suppliers"

That's true in theory, it's not clear that it's true in practice. Consider the actual practice in Ontario of providing block grants (based on a range of students) to universities, rather than per student grants that follow the student. That distorts the markets in a number of different ways beyond simply reducing the price of education. For example, the subsidies reflect the government's choice of whether to supply universities or colleges (or other forms of post-secondary education), or which post-secondary institutions to subsidize. Subsidizing students, on the other hand, leaves the choice of what kind of education to pursue (and where to pursue it) up to the student. Now students may make lousy choices, but so do governments, and in any event, it's far from clear that they'd make the same choices.

"It would be really interesting to know how (if at all) the composition of the student body at U of T and Osgoode law schools has changed after the large increases in university tuition.

And where the increased tuition revenues have gone - e.g. to higher salaries, better buildings, smaller transfers from U of T and York undergrads in 400-seat classrooms taught by contract instructors, services e.g. yoga that directly improve the student experience (all law schools offer free yoga)."

My recollection is that the Ontario law deans did such a study about a decade ago (when, admitedly, tuition at UofT and Osgoode was about half what it is now, thought had still increased significantly) and there hadn't been much impact on composition (largely, I suspect, because UofT introduced a very sophisticated student assistance program, involving generous subsidies, student loans, and income contingent loan repayment).

As to where that money went, well, they haven't been as transparent on that point. Part of the rationale for the tuition increase was the need to attract and retain top professors (who, back in the day of the 60 cent dollar, were being poached by US institutions - curiously, as US law schools have started firing faculty, there's less of a clamour from the UofT faculty to match their US competitors), so it's likely that much of the net increase in revenue (after accounting for student aid) disappeared into the pockets of the professors (most of them are on the sunshine list, so we could probably trace this). I note that other law schools have also increased their revenue (by increasing class size - Hello, University of Ottawa, which shamefully doubled its class size while being increasingly unable to place its students) based on the claim that they had to pay their faculty more.

Personally, I think the claim that Canadian law schools needed to jack up the compensation of their faculty to keep them from being poached is, in many instances, greatly overrated, and reflects to a great degree the capture of the admininstration by the faculty (perhaps not surprising since in most cases, they're one and the same). Administrations with concerned with not fleecing their students (and, again, the University of Ottawa comes to mind, since I don't understand how they can in good conscience increase enrolment and then fail to place 20% of their students) would have responded to demands for higher salaries by telling them, "Good luck, I'm sure the US could use some more Canadian constitutional/criminal/family/tax/whatever law professors". At some point, Canadian law students will catch on to what has become apparent to their US counterparts, that their law degree isn't, in many instances, worth what they're paying for it and enrolment will drop.

I don't know about yoga, but the previous Dean of UofT law school brought in dogs for students to pet to "release their stress". The former Dean of UofT law school was a flake.


Bob Smith: "Subsidizing students, on the other hand, leaves the choice of what kind of education to pursue"

Of course, this depends on how heavily regulated the subsidies are. If they can only be used for certain programs, then the difference may decrease. However, if the subsidies are for a certain value, more transparent pricing might influence decision making.

With respect to Canadian law schools and prices, I think things would have to change drastically for enrollment to drop. Standards will drop first. It is still really competitive to get into U of T law school. I guess at a certain point, you might get a kind of lemon problem as standards fall, so it might happen more quickly than I would expect, but there still seems to be quite a bit of demand that is not satisfied.

The other thing is that the really expensive professors aren't expensive because they are good black letter law instructors. They are usually paid for their research, and asking students to pay for that is an interesting issue, not just at law schools.

"What you're describing sounds like a transparent and inclusive process - and also a lot of work for people. And there's the rub: people want transparency and inclusion, but they don't want the hard work that this entails."

The reviews were a bit of work but not so bad. They just require faculty to attend a few meetings and be opinionated (two things faculty seem to have a competitive advantage at). The hard work was in the course revisions. And on that one I think the lack of want came from both faculty (who prefer changing other people's courses) and admin (who want pub counts more than course revision counts).

"we really do have the best commentators of any economics blog here at WCI" -- why yes, you do :)

"The other thing is that the really expensive professors aren't expensive because they are good black letter law instructors. They are usually paid for their research, and asking students to pay for that is an interesting issue, not just at law schools."

Which is another example of why it makes a difference to subsidize schools versus students. If the subsidy is used to subsize research, it's not used to lower the cost of education for students. Consider whether students might prefer a teaching focussed school with lower tuition fees, and lower expectation around research.

"With respect to Canadian law schools and prices, I think things would have to change drastically for enrollment to drop. Standards will drop first. It is still really competitive to get into U of T law school."

You'd be surprised, even top US schools are starting to feel the pinch (and LSAT scores are dropping). True, places like UofT or Osgoode will continue to do well (they continue to place their students in good articling positions). Places like Queens or Ottawa (or, god help us, Lakehead), who already are having a hard time finding articling jobs for their graduates will feel the pinch (mind you, Queen's was proposing last year to double their class size - to retain their faculty - so you really wonder what planed its administration lives on).

"surely the answer is to provide subsidies to students, rather than suppliers"

This question raises distributional and allocative issues.

On the allocative side, the effect of the subsidy depends on the structure of the market.

If government offers subsidies to a number of students to be used at the same number of student places distributed among universities by government fiat, the most attractive students to universities will get places at their preferred institutions, while less attractive students will settle for placements at less preferred institutions. With this structure the government's fiat assigning places at universities determines the allocation of students. Competition among universities would be limited as all will in the end find their places filled by subsidized students

If each university were free to offer as many or few places as it sees fit, the outcome could be quite different. No university would be assured of attracting students. Universities would have to compete to attract students and their subsidies and they could compete in different ways. Some universities may choose to dumb down. (I hope they won't. The fact that departments with tough standards still attract students offers a glimmer of hope.) Others may choose to emphasize teaching while still others may stress research in the hope that their international reputation will attract students.

This competitive structure could also affect the distribution of subsidies between students and universities. Universities may direct more of their resources to those things that matter to students. If they don’t, they’ll lose their financing.

Frances is right: “To an economists' way of thinking, it doesn't matter whether the subsidy goes to students or suppliers. Who captures the subsidy/the effect on the subsidy on price and output is determined entirely by the structure of the market.” But the structure of the market and the effect of the subsidy on price and output can be influenced by the design of the subsidy. Are students free to use it where they see fit?

John - great to see you on the blog! A proper response to your comment would require an entire additional blog post, so instead I'll say nothing.

"If government offers subsidies to a number of students to be used at the same number of student places distributed among universities by government fiat"

This is how Singapore works. Additionally, the university must charge only the subsidised tuition rate to all matriculated students. If a university wants to take a few more than the fiat amount (as mine does occasionally), that university eats the entire amount of the subsidy. Competition still exists and is fiercer than ever - each university wants to get the best students!

Frances - I'd love to see that additional blog post!

All administration & all management is actually very difficult.

Here's a problem of management I've never heard described by anyone else:

-- it's very hard to find a good manager,
-- and management is often unpleasant,
-- so good managers are paid a lot,
-- so managerial positions pay a lot,
-- so they attract greedy people,
-- who are bad managers,
-- who know out how to look like good managers in interviews,
-- and profit a lot from it.

I have concluded that this particular situation is the major source of the largest problems in all of in society today.

The problems are exacerbated by the fact that a good manager has to have not only massive "people skills" but also massive subject matter expertise for the organization they are managing.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search this site

  • Google

    WWW
    worthwhile.typepad.com
Blog powered by Typepad