Renovating Academia, Part IV

One of the pressures on academia these days has come from those parts of the outside population that believe universities could be run in a more business-like fashion. That is, many people assume that universities should be financially self-sufficient and could operate through much more efficient models—if only they would look to the corporate world for their models.

Many colleges and universities have taken this to heart.

Take note: one of the dangers, if you are a university, of claiming you are “running things like a business” is that experienced businesspeople may see that you really don’t know what you are doing (in the business sense) and move you aside. Soon, you won’t be a university any longer, but will have become a business (not simply “like” a business).

What does that mean?

At its most basic level, a successful business operates by providing its customers with something desired for a price that covers costs and leaves a bit for profit—and at a price that the customer is willing to pay. The more efficiently the business provides that something, the greater the profit will be.

Given outside pressure and an unquestioned belief that a business model is superior, too many university administrators have been struggling to graft this model onto their institutions (or have let people from the business world step in). The widget, in their view, is the education. The customer is the student. The means of providing the widget, the product, is the faculty. The result?

Well, it’s not better education.

Why not?

Education does not fit well into a business model. For one thing, the widget, education, cannot be defined into efficiency. Attempts to do so are forcing education into a retrograde position, for they focus on standardization, one of the main bases of efficiency. Unfortunately, efficiency itself isn’t even necessarily a good thing in an educational environment. It leads to a concentration on measurement and reproducibility, both of which limit education and make it even more backward-looking.

The over-emphasis on standardized testing (seen as efficient) certainly has been heightened by a business model of education. But standardized testing is the ultimate “inside the box” system for evaluation, grading only on what has been deemed both correct and important. It demotes creativity to nothingness and makes the ability to utilize the scientific method extracurricular. Learning governed by standardized tests concentrates on what has been, not on what could be. It is, ultimately, stultifying, for it is the opposite of expansive, which is what education should be.

Applying the business model to education usually presupposes that the customer is the student. This isn’t really true: the ultimate purchaser of education is the organization that hires the student based on the diploma, not the student himself/herself. By focusing on the student as customer, the universities neglect the needs of the real end-users, and often end up supplying a second-rate product (having been seduced into satisfying the wrong “customer”). “Customer,” really, cannot be grafted onto education, for there are too many “customer” constituents (not only students and employers, but parents, government and even the military).

Another problem with applying a business model to education is that it assumes that faculty members are simply part of a means of production and can be easily swapped out. A couple of years ago, I taught for a bit for an accredited online for-profit “university.” There, the faculty members were not allowed to create classes, but merely acted as “facilitators” and were expected to be able to step in to a class anywhere along the line, if needed. As a result, the quality of the instruction was quite low, and the qualifications of the instructors weren’t much higher. I took the part-time job because the pay was high—but left soon after because the work was boring. Most other of the highly-qualified teachers did the same. Attracted by the money, they constantly end up leaving because they aren’t really teaching. And they did not become teachers for the money—but to really teach.

I talked with the administrators of the “university” about this as I was leaving, trying to convince them that the level of instruction could never really be high if they continued to have non-teaching specialists set curricula and assignments. Businesspeople, they could not understand what I was talking about, feeling they were providing an efficient education through standardization. They could not understand that the teachers have to be intellectually stimulated if they are going to intellectually stimulate their students.

There certainly are reasons for trying to make universities more efficient and less dependent on non-tuition funding. But a simple business model will not make universities efficient and profitable—unless a good deal of what we think of as “real” education is given up.

More in the next installment.

[The previous part can be found here.]