Double whammy

We all understand that, sometimes, financial hardship is simply a fact of life. And I do believe that most of us are willing to endure painful sacrifices, in the pursuit of a common good.
What exasperates people, is the perception of a general lack of vision, of a concrete, well thought out crisis management plan, on the part of those in charge of overseeing operations. Particularly disconcerting is a reassuring public rhetoric, filled with generic statements of understanding of the gravity of the situation, and of resolve to ensure that the period of scarcity be weathered with minimal suffering and no permanent damage, and a concomitant pattern of actions suggesting all but the opposite.

The relentless, systematic use of short-term “solutions”, band-aids; repeatedly tapping into the same reservoirs, bleeding them empty without any attempt to distribute sacrifices equitably; consistently expecting more for less, in complete disregard for the obvious erosion of standards, are what generally lead to widespread discontent, resentment and loss of morale among those affected by the hardship.

No, I am not about to lash out at some Western government (or, all of them), even though it is uncanny how the same type of general remarks would apply. Today, I would like to write about what looms on the horizon for my own University, for which announced budget shortfalls are easily predicted to lead to a number of undesired consequences, the two most important being the deterioration of academic standards, and the consequent diminished international standing of the institution.
Why is such an outcome almost inevitable ?
Mostly because reduced resources mean a smaller size faculty, which in turn negatively affects both the scholarly research output (for obvious reasons, as there are fewer scholars to carry out research), as well as the average class size. Scholarly research (however measured) and Student-to-Faculty ratio (STFR) directly influence the standing of the institution, as assessed by any accredited rankings [0].

Now, one may legitimately ask: what exactly are you suggesting that “those in charge” do ? If the world is for the most still mired in the depth of a recession, if states and provinces experience revenue shortfalls, it is inevitable that budget cuts will be implemented across the board. Unfortunate as that is, education will be affected too, like other essential public services.
And that is, of course, true, at least in principle [1]. But the issue arises of how best a University administration should deal with such a situation. Is the right approach that of simply passing the cuts down to the labs, the classrooms, the machine shops, the offices, the administration as well [2], or are there some actions that should be considered, at least in order to try and limit the damage ?

The Arts faculty is already facing potentially devastating cuts, and there is no question that without a world class Arts faculty there is no world class university. So, clearly now it is the time for something bold, creative and perhaps unconventional, in terms of allocating wisely the reduced resources.
But I would prefer to discuss instead some action that the administration could be taking immediately, aimed at preventing the institution from slipping significantly down the rankings as a result of cuts, something which, as I previously expounded, would be undesirable. I presume that the University president would not be pleased with that outcome either.

There are a number of reasons to believe that, as job growth in this province remains strong, and professionals relocate from other parts of the country and of the world, demand for undergraduate education in this province will be likely going up. If, concurrently, reduction in teaching personnel continues, or at any rate the sie of the faculty does not increase proportionally, the STFR will keep getting worse. In fact, the concurrent budget cuts and the predicted rise in undergraduate applications, could result into a true double whammy for my institution.

At this juncture, with another undergraduate institution in town that is making no mystery about wanting to expand its enrolment, if I were a high-ranked administrator at University of Alberta would start serious talk of raising admission standards, at least until funding from the province increases. That would have a number of short and possibly long term beneficial effects.
First of all, it could be used not to let average class size, as well as the STFR become too high. Secondly, and more importantly, it might trigger a serious, long overdue discussion in the province, about the importance of funding higher education, the possible merit of increasing the number of undergraduate institutions, as well as of the benefit of having at least one provincial research university enjoying a respectable international standing.
The argument that I have consistently heard against raising admission standards, and therefore against reducing enrolment (or, not increasing it at the pace at which it is set to increase), is that the funding that comes from the legislature is proportional to enrolment, and therefore reducing it would mean facing even deeper budget cuts. That seems like a dubious contention, though, given the current, acknowledged state of underfunding. It implies that the university’s long term interest is best served by going down the slippery slope of steadily increased enrolment, without receiving the funds that are required to handle it, hence facing more and more difficulties in carrying out its mission, and declining even further. It seems like a catch-22.


[0] As usual, debating whether “it is really true” that larger class size means a less effective classroom experience for the students, is pointless. Fact is, society deems that to be the case. Rankings of universities privilege low STFR.
Personally, I do believe large class size to be detrimental to learning. At University of Alberta we are already teaching introductory science classes with enrolment over 400, and having been in charge of teaching one of them for the past two years, it is quite clear to me that that is not the way to go, especially for a discipline like mine (physics). This will be the subject of an upcoming post, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is imperative for physics department all over the continent to shift their teaching focus to introductory physics courses for undeclared or non-physics majors, and keeping enrolment in those courses low, is a key aspect.
Just to make it clear how serious I am, I think that for many such departments, this may well be a matter of survival.

[1] Of course, opinions may differ as to the adequacy of the support given by the legislature to the leading research university in the province, a province that by all accepted measures has enjoyed robust economic growth over the past two decades and supposedly aims to raise its international profile. But that is not what this post is all about.

[2] I know, I am so funny, I crack myself up.

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9 Responses to “Double whammy”

  1. Calvin Says:

    I’m pretty sure that in the not-too-distant future (say 5-10 years) my physics department will indeed shift to making teaching introductory physics courses their primary focus.

    And by “primary” I mean “only.” Who needs a physics major when you have a psychology major? Psychology is a more popular major, and the customer is always right, right?

    It’s not that we’ll want to do that, but when we shrink to only five faculty members, as we will in 5-10 years, and have to teach 4 large (we’re over 500 in some now) introductory courses each and every semester, the outcome is inevitable.

    • Massimo Says:

      What about our agreement that you would not write any comment anticipating and summarizing my next 35-page post ?

      • Calvin Says: about this?

        Our university system recently commissioned a report “proving” that our campus presidents are underpaid (by say 10-20%) relative to “peer” institutions. Needless to say, this report was duly trumpeted in the newspapers.

        Our department was recently reviewed, and it was shown that, relative to other large campuses within our own system we are teaching as many students and doing more research with half the faculty. Half. And we are supposedly the “premier” campus within the system.

        Not only is this not going to show up in the papers, the dean said he didn’t believe the number, and anyway he had told us even before he forced to carry out the review that he would ignore any positive recommendations (such as hire more faculty).

        I hope that isn’t going to be the subject of your next 35-page post.

  2. Craig Says:

    But the university will be happy to provide $10 million for a Canada Excellence Research Chair, matching the federal commitment.

    Which I find rather astonishing, given the continual cuts, and presumably a source of discouragement and resentment among the support staff being relentlessly downsized. Surely the administration can recognize that a functioning top-tier university depends on having a wide range of departments doing excellent work, not on just a couple of superstars.

    • Massimo Says:

      The thing that bothers me the most is that the president continues on with her rhetoric of “international reputation”, “world class’, mentioning rankings in every other sentence, all while student to faculty ratio keeps increasing (and that is one of the most important things affecting rankings) and while she oversees the downsizing (dismantling ?) of the Faculty of Arts, without which this basically ceases to be a university, much less a world class one.

      • Schlupp Says:

        Maybe she has inside information that it is going to be even worse at all other universities? After all, the rankings only measure relative quality.

      • Massimo Says:

        I think she has got the perception that at the end of the day students and their parents do not really care much about STFR, international reputation etc. And there is a pretty good chance that she may be right… sigh.

  3. Craig Says:

    But your idea about raising admission standards is a really interesting one. It seems perfectly appropriate that so long as the province keeps our budget flat, our enrollment should also be flat.

  4. Schlupp Says:

    At a certain University that I like to call ProvincialTech and where I studied, physics enrolment grew by 50% in the last 10 years, while tenure-track faculty in theory was roughly halved. (It’s not quite as bad in experiment, they only lost a few lines. Because, if you are an extremely cash-strapped institution, it clearly makes sense to focus more on expensive experiment, right?[1]) Now, rankings do not matter in this case, because the place does not show up in any anyway. (Phew! Mustn’t the administration be gald of that?)

    [1] OK, such a shift might be justified if there had been an outrageous thoeretical overhang before. Not the case.

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