Recently, I asked my Twitter followers who taught in universities about the part of their job they liked the least. I asked because I am pretty convinced Canadian higher education isn’t going to get through the next decade or so without some reasonably big changes in the way faculty spend their time.
Here’s my basic assumption: as I noted back here, we’re on the brink of a pretty big increase in youth numbers. The best guess is that the number of domestic students is going to increase by about 20% in the next five years or so. For financial reasons, the number of international students is unlikely to drop. And it’s unlikely there’s oceans of public money heading in the direction of public higher education any time soon. So, this new wave of students is very likely going to have to be taught and provided services via efficiencies within the system.
I think there are four different ways to generate efficiencies. First, you can drive down the real cost of wages among full-time staff. To some extent, that seems to be happening already, in the sense that academic unions are currently accepting wage increases that are below the rate of inflation. Second, you can drop the average rate of pay per instructor by handing over a greater fraction of teaching to sessionals, but I don’t get the sense that very many institutions are particularly interested in this approach these days. Third, you can switch the mix of total faculty time towards teaching either by making a greater portion of academic staff teaching-only or by generally raising the amount of teaching and reducing the amount of time demanded for research (the former idea probably has legs at some institutions, the latter has little support anywhere).
Or, fourth, you could systematically re-design academic jobs to make them less time-consuming. And according to my (very unscientific) poll, there are two key areas where academic instructors need a break. The first is on what broadly might be called “administrative work” and the other is grading.
Let’s start with the admin stuff first. I am always a little bit skeptical about claims that universities have some unique ability to bury staff in paperwork – filling in forms and getting approvals seems to me to be a universal hazard of modern life in big organizations. But on the other hand, those other big organizations probably aren’t asking their highest-priced talent to do the form-filling: the opportunity costs here can be high. It seems to me that most institutions could buy a lot of faculty time and good-will by analyzing how to reduce the length and complexity of allforms. I suspect there is a lot of data being collected which is “nice to have” but not “need to have”, or forms that could be significantly shortened by auto-populating fields based on user-ID. It doesn’t even really cost anything: everybody is paying for all their IT anyway; it just means up-prioritizing this project and down-prioritizing certain others.
Now, grading. This may sound heretical, but I think there’s solid case for many institutions to experiment with making grading an entirely separate activity from teaching. There’s a very good model available for this: it’s how Western Governors’ University in the United States works. Teachers teach, and help develop rubrics to evaluate assignments, while evaluators – not paid at quite the same rate as professors – evaluate. Basically, you get both productivity returns to specialization, and lower average hourly costs.
(Or, to be just a bit reductionist about it, everyone gets a TA. It’s not like some profs don’t get to outsource this stuff already)
How such a solution might be deployed is going to depend a bit by field of study, size of department and institution, and other factors. There should be some experimentation within and across universities before definite solutions that work in specific circumstances are arrived at. And, no doubt, there will be resistance. Many professors see assessment as inherently part of their job; and certainly, for many that is indeed the way their occupation has been framed.
But look at it this way: most professors got their jobs by being content experts. They did not get it by being exports on pedagogy, curriculum, or assessment. And maybe institutions need to focus more on how they can ensure that the use of professors’ actual expertise is maximized, rather than asking its most skilled workers to do tasks that could be assigned more cheaply to others. Especially when a big increase in teaching loads is right around the corner.