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I think much depends on the results we expect from a university education. If it's just about grinding out students who can pass a multiple choice exam, then my best guess is that the slide will continue. Alternatively, if having an undergraduate degree means you actually know something, have learned some deeper insight, can really think, etc ... then I think the slide will stop. But that will imply that fewer students will have the chops to get into and complete university. Strictly speaking, I doubt that everyone needs to go to university to be happy, productive citizens but as it is, that's the working assumption.

And I can't count the number of times I've heard profs (especially econ profs) say "well, that's the crap we teach the undergrads - it's not the way it really works". That can't help; if nothing else it's terrible advertising. At least in the physical sciences the spherical cows are usually still very useful (e.g. plenty of useful physics gets done without Einstein and Feynman).

Government funding limits/choices have also played a prominent part, especially over the timeframe since 1980. For instance, Ontario does not fund university residence construction anymore. There the trend has been to move upper-year students out into neighbourhoods. Residence guarantees are advertising for first-years. In places like McMaster in Hamilton where the neighbourhood still contains a significant amount of local families, it creates a lot of friction. Residences which are constructed are paid out of the university's own funds, er, tuition receipts.

In my last year at university, the government allowed a $1500 increase for tuition the next year (which I avoided). The faculty said plainly that since they weren't getting the money from other sources, they were going to get it from the students.

"And powerpoint is brilliant. With a good set of powerpoint notes, lecturing requires minimal effort - upload the notes (o.k., that's hard), grab your remote control, click through the slides, tell a few jokes, and watch your teaching evaluations soar!"

Now I know why magicians don't give away their secrets. You pretty much gave away my shtick. :)

Yes, but do you get applause.

It's not a secret. Good preachers have done the same for centuries. Maybe not with Powerpoint but a few good jokes and wry humour goes a long, long way.

Great post by the way. I had just registered a complaint at my school, at the amount of money that goes to everything except teachers, in response to a spam survey from somewhere seeking to gather input on learning methods.

I'm not sure about the difference between female and male faculty. The female ones don't seem to have the same competitive spark wrt, research, enough that I'd want to jump on board with it. But the male ones could also be pursuing derivative projects. I've had equally poor male and female profs, but the best prof was a male, who was able to understand exactly what was in my head when I was asking a question, and able to tailor a response to fix the wiring in my brain, it was truly amazing. I'm sexist in that I kind of mistrust the authority of women profs on subjects, for males expertise status is usually all they have, women have families, etc. But regardless, males can be just adamantly wrong, so the information content is probably the same, need to do background reading regardless. If males profs don't know the answer to something, they bluster, females divert.

I never thought of it that way, Determinant, but my lectures are a lot like the church services I went to as a kid. Except more swearing and more references to Richard Nixon.

What do you mean, you don't look like Hal Varian? That was disappointing.

But seriously, the source of high costs in university education is not the labor cost of teaching, but the scarcity of trusted credentialing entities, which results in rents flowing to such entities. If testing and grading was separated from teaching, my bet is that the cost of the latter would plummet.

Jeeze, I really hated Powerpoint based lectures in University. I find it much easier to pay attention to a lecture done on the chalk board where steps are gone through in a logical, detailed way rather then a bunch of bullet points thrown up on a Powerpoint slide.
I certainly feel the quality of university education has decreased sharply in recent years, the think the coursework today is easier then in the past and it's not just because of technological tools making certain tasks quicker.

This is slightly off-topic:

I'm dissatisfied with partial equilibrium explanations of (say) the feminisation of academia. If women/men and under/over represented in one occupation, then it must logically be the case that women/men are over/under represented in some other occupations. Everybody is somewhere. So we can't just look at what is happening in one occupation; we have to look at them all (or, at least two). If universities become feminised: where are the women coming from?; where are the men going to?

I expect the easy answer for women is that they have been coming out of the home. But I'm not sure that will work for men. Does Jessica Pan say where the men go?

Carleton's faculty went from 16.7% female in 1988 to 35.5% in 2009, but I don't detect any noticeable trend this last few years. It might have levelled off, or it might just be too noisy to see.


Determinant: from my experience universities do not pay for residences out of tuition fees. We get a mortgage to build the residence, then pay the mortgage from the residence fees, rather like a landlord. Residences are supposed to be self-financing.

Edeast: " I'm sexist in that I kind of mistrust the authority of women profs on subjects" I'm glad you raised that point. Do you know the Monty Python sketch "this is my theory, it belongs to me". When I was first saw it, I thought it was just a silly sketch about brontosauruses. Now I realize it captures the deep distrust and skepticism some people have with the idea of female expertise. To the extent that this is true, female professors start to be seen as instructors, people there to help students learn, and not researchers, experts, authorities. And why does an instructor need to have a PhD and a six figure salary? On productivity of male and female researchers - I suspect if you looked at male faculty members with young kids and spouses employed full time they would look quite a bit like female faculty members.

Determinant - on the shift of funding from government to students - yes, you're right. That subject is so big that it merits a post of its own - I had it in this one and then cut it.

Patrick: . "Alternatively, if having an undergraduate degree means you actually know something, have learned some deeper insight, can really think, etc ... then I think the slide will stop." My sense is that in Canada we're beginning to see fracturing of the higher educational system, as has already occurred in the US. I see students and parents seeking out programs that offer small classes and high quality instruction, whether those are in small undergraduate universities in the Maritimes, or in restricted enrolment programs in larger universities, such as Carleton's College of the Humanities.

Anon - rent seeking/credentialism. Yup, there's another post to be written on this subject.

Nick - yes, one of the papers I cited, I think Jessica Pan's does talk about this, and I'm pretty sure your hunch is right. She does a *huge* amount of empirical work and finds that the tipping patterns pre, say, 1970 were different from the tipping patterns in the 80s and 90s. Sorry, I'm feeling too lazy to go and find the #s and work it all out.

I would doubt that the Carleton % of faculty who are female will stay at 35%. 35% is almost exactly the same as the Canadian national average reported by CAUT of 34%. CAUT also reports that 45% of new full time faculty hires are women, and I would guess that this is probably true at Carleton also. In which case that 35% number should gradually trend upwards. Also, aggregate #s hide the very different experiences of different units, e.g. Engineering v. English.

CBBB: "Jeeze, I really hated Powerpoint based lectures in University. " Actually what I do - and the students seem to really like - is flash up things like definitions and explanations of basic concepts on powerpoint, and then solve a bunch of problems on the chalkboard. Students can see the question on the powerpoint slide, and then see as I work through a step by step solution. And they have to write those down, which helps with the memory/retention. The great thing about powerpoint is that you can embed pictures and videos etc.

I wish I could do brilliant talk-and-chalk like Nick Rowe does, but I can't.

"I see students and parents seeking out programs that offer small classes and high quality instruction, whether those are in small undergraduate universities in the Maritimes ..." This statement is simply brilliant (but don't ask me how big my first-year class is.)

"Anon - rent seeking/credentialism. Yup, there's another post to be written on this subject."

Not so much rent seeking, as limits to scale and institutional inertia. Perhaps universities can't radically cut teaching costs/quality or unbundle teaching/research/testing, because if any of them did so, its credentials would not be as valued. So labor costs are important, but only indirectly.

Specialized certifying agencies do exist, but they mostly issue professional credentials in niche fields, which is quite different from what uni's do.

As for why teaching costs are so high, my guess is that the overall institutional framework (including tenure, etc.) makes university professors the residual claimant, even though most universities are formally non-profit organizations. But I could be wrong, and it could vary on a case-by-case basis.

The problem is that the issue of university quality is not just a result of classes getting too big or even professors using Powerpoint. I think the coursework is easier then in the past, and I think Canadian universities are easier then American universities. This is partly due to the selectivity of universities - it's a million times easier to get into a top tier Canadian university then it is to get into a top tier American university.
You used Waterloo as an example of raising tuition costs, and it's considered to be an upper-tier Canadian university but I can tell you first hand it doesn't take a whole lot of brainpower to get a degree from Waterloo compared to top tier American schools like MIT.
At the end of the day higher tuition wouldn't matter so much if the graduates from universities had a good chance of getting high paying jobs that would compensate them for the high tuition costs. But this is becoming less and less the case and part of the reason is that universities aren't giving students much of a productivity boost.

It's a just a little mental bump that I have to get over, and I do.

But maybe this explains the missing right of passage etc, I've been procrastinating on submitting some proofs, to a female prof. No reason, just it brings to mind that I'm still trying to impress distributed mothers, rather than establish a ranking in a social hierarchy etc. but keep in mind this is coming from a firm C student.

My views, on research were recently coloured, by an article in science describing a female prof losing tenure, can't find link, That's why it came out like that, although a recent post somewhere on the internet describes a male post-grad giving up as well.
Currently when I look at research projects in the school my eyes are looking for dollar signs. My field is I guess computational biology, and I don't care about animals, so that probably affects how I view certain projects as well.

And yes some of my smart friends went to Carleton's Humanities.

Your cost comparisons are I know slanted a bit to make a point, but I think they're even more unfair than you suggest. The "cost" of a year of university has I think gone up considerably less than your example suggests. The main difference, as some have pointed out, is that government directly subsidizes it to a much lesser degree than in the past, so some of the cost increase is really just cost shifting. In addition to that, the sticker price students see is much more in many cases than they actually pay. In my day, tuition cost what tuition cost. There were no cash back rebates (over 50% in PEI for first year, smaller rebates in later years if you hang in there loyally.) Nor did we have the proliferation of scholarships and bursaries. I'm sure there were some, but other than a select few getting Ontario Graduate Scholarships at my grad, I can't remember anything - certainly not the extended cataloging of offers from here and there for all but an embarrassed few we had to wait through at my kid's graduations in recent years. Not to mention forgiveness programs on debt and other subsidies.

Maybe more on you main points later - looks interesting - but I had to get that off.


Unlike Frances, Nick and Mike, I'm that prof who goes through brutally technical material in a language that is manifestly *not* his mother tongue...

Jim - I'm working on a post right now that talks about some of these issues. How does this cash rebate work? Does it have any tax advantages?

Stephen - but think of the entertainment you provide your students!

The PEI scheme is explained here:


I think some other provinces have similar plans.


It's not entertaining. I have been the student in that situation, though the mother tongue of the prof was Mandarin. It led to a silly but true case where a Mandarin-phone student with shaky English couldn't understand the prof's English when teaching first-year Algebra.

Or the group of MBA students who lodged a complaint against their accounting TA, my brother, saying that his English was too good and they couldn't understand him. My brother's first language is English. Coming from a household of preachers, it is a very high standard of English.

The prof dismissed the complaint as being without merit (actual words used were more colourful).

[Comment deleted - FW]


Supposed. There is still significant financial risk involved. I've seen cases where it hasn't worked out. Risk gets passed around. It is but one example of the shift away from government funding.

For a recovering (former) female academic, this discussion is fascinating. A couple things not yet mentioned that have occurred to me:

1. That universities have been trying to outsource to cheaper labour by having grad students and sessionals / adjuncts do more of the teaching that previously was done by tenured or TT faculty. In my 2 years as a sessional I figured out I made less than minimum wage for the hours I put in. There are armies of academic gypsies in North America travelling from one adjunct gig to another, making something like $30K per year. It's insane.

Clearly this hasn't worked to stop the rising tuition fees. So ...

2. The other issue is transfer payments from governments. They're going down everywhere as governments try to balance the books. Don't far more students attend colleage/university today than 20 years ago? If post-secondary education receives government funding, then per student it has been going down even if the total dollar transferred is the same or has risen modestly. This means that students themselves have to carry more of the costs of their education.


Great post as always Frances. If, when I tried taking it as an undergrad, economics covered the interesting questions and issues that you do, I might have stuck with it :-).

I dare not say if universities have reached the tipping point.

But I would say is that the economics advantage and incentive of attending an undergraduate program has drastically dropped.

First, a typical graduate gets to start work later, so there's less "compounding effect" of gaining work experience.

Second, the number of quality working years is less as the value of older workers drop very fast too. Worse, the career crisis that occurs in the mid-life of an individual happens even earlier. Hence, the tendency to switch jobs and re-start all over again is much higher.

Therefore, unless one is determined to be in academia, one should not study beyond a Bachelor's degree. not even an Honours degree, let alone a Master and a Ph D.

Of course, it applies to the man, more than the woman. Purely my opinion. (no offence, folks)

Wendy, you're absolutely right about tuition - I've written a second post that talks directly about this, and it's going up this evening (as Nick's just posted, I don't want to put anything up right now).

On the army of adjuncts - this is precisely what I'm talking about. The old model of the researcher/teacher/tweed jacketed male professor is in decline, and the women who are looking for academic jobs get shunted into these low paid, relatively less skilled, no promotion opportunities positions.

Then the call for reform to academia can be framed in terms of enhancing gender equality: let's make these exploited female sessional/adjunct/professors into full time instructors with 3 and 3 teaching loads, permanent but untenured positions, and salaries of $80,000 a year. That offer would be more attractive than working as a less than minimum wage adjunct, wouldn't it? But it sure saves the university a vast amount relative to the standard-issue tenured professor.

Anon, some writers have talked about the 'ratchet effect', the idea that profs are gradually ratcheting down teaching loads from 3 and 3 to 2 and 3 and then 2 and 2, and gradually ratcheting down their administrative duties. It does seem to happen.

Greg Tkacz - you're part of the solution, not part of the problem, in so many ways ;-)
I think the advantage of small class sizes is about the social, rather than the instructional, experience - students who have rich and lengthy social interactions during lectures notwithstanding.

Matthew Yglesias has a different theory of education in Cuba:

Some interesting science on gender roles in places with a history of plough-agriculture:

TGGP - Canadian-in-exile Nathan Nunn has also done some interesting work on ploughs. Sounds like I should blog that.

On Matthew Yglesias's post - yes, there is evidence on declining teacher quality, see this post from last summer.

I graduated about 5 years ago with significant debt, and the job market being what it is, even with a degree I've just barely been scraping by. If I had known when I applied to University how much debt I would have when I graduated, it would have significantly changed the equation, and I might not have gone that route. I think when interest costs are factored in, it might be 25 years before I see a net benefit to my income from my degree. Unfortunately, this isn't the information that high school students are getting (at least they weren't when I was there, maybe it's different now?). I was told that without a degree, I would be shut out of most of the competetive workforce, and my income would be significantly reduced. The costs, and the length of time to repay, were glossed over with promises of low interest financing, and grants to high achieving students. It was very much a sales pitch.
Without good information, we cannot make good economic decisions, and at a certain point it no longer makes economic sense to go to university. I believe that for most people, tuition has already risen above that point, but students won't realize it until much too late.
My advice to high school students today would be: There will be tremendous demand for trades like plumbers in the future, and the financial rewards will be far higher than many professional programs, without the crippling debt of a University degree. Be sure that you check out those options also (even if everyone tells you that you're smart enough to go to University - you might just prove that you're even smarter than that by not going)

A fwe random thoughts.
Deskilling? Not sure . It takes far more skills to teach now than earlier. in 1978 , I used a book. The same. One test bank, not very complicated. We, like pilots and surgeons, do things unconceivable 30 years ago. But they are routine.

Loss of status certainly. When I got my post in my cegep in 1978, my parents' neighbor , a deputy minister, congratulated them for their son's professional succes. Not sure it would work like that now. At the times, barely 10% made it to Cegep and 5 % to university. Prestigious to go, prestigious to teach. But it was tipping. One of my cousins went in economics at the same University that I later attended. My 1st year econ class in 1975 had the same number of students than the whole Social Sciences faculty in 1965. Fot a time , prof's salary went up because of the need for warm bodies but then the prestige factor went away, so the signalling was lower real wages. and ladies welcome.

Obsetricians, like all doctors, are now feminizing. So are crown attorneys. Maybe explaining why they could get a back-to-work lax in Québec. They still thought of themsleves as prestigious instead of slightly higher echelon cops...

The career path no longer leads to administration. Upper U. management is now recruited by head hunters. A few months ago, the new recteur at the Université de Montréal was described by the president of the search commitee as "having great realtions with the business community." When asked about relations with professors and researchers, the guy just shot a blank stare at the inate questionner...

Tuition go up as a signaling mechanism. Expensive means good. And you will justify it on rankings that are intellectual frauds ( according to the Times Education Supplement, if Princeton fired Krugman and hired me, its rankiing would go up). That's why the first programs targeted fot hikes are MBA, the cheapest to produce but an entry card into the top. Paying for your MBA is like paying for your army commission in the old english army. Only the faithful will apply and they won't lose their investment by rebelling. Of course , it ended up with the charge of the Light Brigade and looking at modern corporations, they are headed that way.

A future for the tradesmen? Who will pay them?

Jacques - thank you for the comments. "Deskilling? Not sure . It takes far more skills to teach now than earlier. in 1978 , I used a book. The same. One test bank, not very complicated." - but with only one test bank, presumably you ended up making up a lot of your own questions, which takes a great deal of skill?

Why in the world do we still need PhDs, male or female, using chalk or Powerpoint, to teach hundreds of elementary courses in calculus, statistics, probability theory, differential equations, chemistry, biology, or anything else, spread over dozens of universities, when it can be done much better using today's multimedia technology?

What a waste of resources!

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