Customers on Campus

Commentary, Education, Peter Holle

Our universities are floundering. In the worst public sector tradition, they remain substantially disconnected from their customers and financial benefactors. Funds pour into declining faculties while ones in demand turn away students for lack of resources.

Should anyone be surprised that these institutions perform below potential when their customers have so little control?

Central to the problem is the concept of tenure, which essentially gives existing teachers a job for life. Once they’ve reached that status, it’s almost impossible to force instructors to perform well in or out of the classroom. Worse, it prevents responsiveness to society’s needs. Departments carry a lot of deadwood and construct budgets based on the wants of the faculty rather than the needs of the students.

What if there was some way to guide expenditures to make them more relevant to student needs instead of the desires of campus teaching guilds? Ideally, the fees-paying customers, the students, would control the money. Faculties with hot, marketable degrees would quickly see resources flow their way. The areas of decline now operating, in many cases, to maintain tenured staff, would see diminished support and fade away.

But there are less radical ways to introduce some customer sensitivity into the ivory tower.

Two University of Manitoba professors, Rod Clifton and Hymie Rubenstein, would base internal budgeting at the U of M on teaching performance, assessed through student evaluations. Here’s how it would work, in their words:

“Departments with an average teaching score above a certain level would be given credits for additional resources-more money, better facilities and increased academic and other positions-while departments below this cut-off level would not receive credits for additional resources. In turn, departments below a certain level would lose credits.”

Under the system now in use, good instructors are penalized and poor ones rewarded because students quickly learn which professors have more ability and flood into their courses. The less talented benefit by seeing their workloads diminish. Clifton and Rubenstein want to restore flexibility to the process by allowing departments to grow or shrink by a standard of superior teaching. They propose a method of weighting scores between faculties to ensure that high evaluations are not bought with high grades.

It is even possible, the professors suggest, to make teaching performance dictate the level of tuition fees. Highly ranked departments could charge more per course. The desire of students to receive degrees from prestigious faculties would discourage them from underrating performances to lower tuition costs.

The performance-based model contains incentives that would cancel out some of the worst features of the modern mega-university. Departments often now put their worst and least experienced teachers in front of large first-year classes. To capture higher ratings and more funds, they would instead place their most skilled instructors. Widespread indifference towards the quality of teaching would disappear as departments ensured their budget share by helping poor teachers to improve, something that rarely happens now.

Responsive budgets need to consider more important factors than blindly replicating past spending. It is no secret, for instance, that the Computer Science departments at all three Manitoba universities have been starved for resources just as demand for their services has exploded. Instead, the schools have to pay tenured instructors in the overstaffed social sciences, faculties that thrived during the heyday of civil service expansion, but which are no longer in demand.

In an effort to solve the U of M’s budget problems while promoting exemplary teaching, U of M president Emoke Szathmary could do worse than follow the advice of a few brave folks who are working right under her nose.