02 April 2010

Academic H1N1: The Viral Spread of the Business Model in Universities

A piece on the situation at Sussex by Jim Collins at Georgetown. He was Leverhulme Visiting Research Professor here from January to June 2009.

Higher education budget cuts are everywhere, especially in universities funded principally by public authorities, whether the central government, as in the UK, or state governments, as in California. The universal cry goes up: trim the fat! We need lean, market-driven universities; let us apply sound business practice to those inefficient, cobweb encrusted relics of the now lost Golden Age. American historians have banded together to support the efforts of our colleagues in the Royal Historical Society to fight such cuts, such as those announced for the University of Sussex, which have prompted a staff strike vote, student demonstrations, police violence, and arrests, or at King’s College, or at the California State University system. YouTube is filled with videos of student protests against fee increases and staff cuts across the Anglo-American world.

The budget crunches at Sussex and King’s are just the tip of the iceberg: 6,000 staff at UK universities either currently face or will soon face redundancies. In the US, systems like those of California or Nevada, where students are demonstrating about the possible closing of colleges and the abolition of certain major fields in universities that survive the cuts, are looking at budget cuts of 10% or even more, and at sharp tuition increases (32% in California). To help make up for nearly $600 million in cuts, the California State University system announced that all 47,000 of its employees would have to accept ‘furloughs’ (i.e., unpaid days off) two days each month: this action cuts their pay by 10%, but does not reduce their theoretical base salary.

Tenure offers some protection to full-time US professors, but thousands of part-time teachers have already been laid off. American law allows universities to break tenure and terminate professors if the program in which they teach is eliminated. The University of North Texas, Dallas Campus took that approach a step further: they announced that the entire teaching staff of 38 must reapply for their jobs. They covered their legal tracks by saying that a new college would be in place, the University of North Texas at Dallas. (Orwell would be proud.) Amazingly enough, King’s College proposes to apply the same trick in the UK, on a much vaster scale: they, too, will terminate all contracts and make every member of arts and humanities staff reapply for his or her job for 2010-11 (one wonders who will serve on the search committees for the teaching jobs).

Universities in the US and, especially in recent times, in the UK, have gone to the business model of education: the situation has reached the point in the UK that higher education is now subsumed within the responsibilities of the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills. Putting Higher Education under that Ministry, because higher education is just skills acquisition (and tying the subcategory of Higher Education to Intellectual Property, and placing them under a lawyer whose expertise lies precisely in media law and in employment skills) makes it obvious that the Labour Government is thinking in such terms. Higher Education is, in part, skills acquisition: one of the most important of those skills is critical analytical thinking. Somehow, the cuts seem to focus especially on fields, like History and Literature, that rely on open-ended learning and critical analysis of narrative sources, and on such programs at schools, like Sussex or satellite American state universities, that serve a broad range of socioeconomic groups. Students at Oxbridge or the Ivy League will continue to get that sort of training, which, now as always, focuses on the social elite; students at places like Sussex or the University of Louisiana, Lafayette (which just eliminated Philosophy as a major) will get less and less of it.

European Civilization, following in the footsteps of its Classical predecessor, has long believed that the study of philosophy, history, and literature are the best ways to develop the highest levels of such thinking, aside from problems specifically tied to modern sciences. Higher Education serves as well as the center of our collective quest for knowledge and understanding, both for their immediate material benefits, and for their broader philosophical ones. Long experience has taught our civilizations that the search for the latter, in ways we cannot necessarily pin down, translates into progress on the former. Steps like the abolition of the Chair in Palaeography at King’s diminish us all, because they will eventually remove from us any chance of learning from newly discovered ancient texts.

This shift to the free market business model (at precisely the moment when that model has failed cataclysmically in the economic world) entails two key changes: 1) administrators, oh, excuse me, ‘professional management’ (see below), now define those who attend universities as ‘consumers’, not students; and 2) universities have shifted to the managerial model. The shift to the ‘consumer’ label puts curricular content effectively into the hands of those taking classes. Consumers like history courses on, say, Hitler, and dislike those on, say, the Renaissance, so faculty must teach the former. Specialists who teach the Renaissance, because their ‘product’ does not sell well, must be made redundant: the inexorable law of the market.

History Departments should therefore focus almost all teaching on the period after 1900: in fact, in the cuts mentioned above, Sussex proposed precisely to eliminate teaching of the social, economic, and political history of Continental Europe prior to 1900, on the grounds of insufficient consumer demand for the product. Now that Harry Patch is dead, we can soon dispense with World War I, too; after all, today’s American students are as roughly as chronologically distant from the Battle of the Somme as I was from the Battle of Gettysburg, when I was an undergraduate. The idea that the faculty should set the curriculum (an idea, let it be noted, that is embedded in the statutes of almost all universities), on the assumption that people come to study with people who know more than they do, has effectively disappeared. Curricula always need to be modernized, and student input must play a vital role in that process, but core elements that make a university education a university education must be preserved.

The shift to the managerial model of business entails dramatically increased layers of administration, oops, ‘management’, and a concomitant reordering of the ratio of administrative to teaching costs. In former times, both in the US and in the UK, universities followed the Republic of Letters model: professors alternated in administrative positions, usually for 3- or 5-year terms. I held such a position at Georgetown from 2000-03, supervising 40+ tenure-track professors, 25 or so part-time teachers, 80 PhD students, a full-time staff of three, several part-time staff, and budgets totaling well over $5 million. My additional salary came to $8k/year, not built into my permanent pay; the university also allowed me a semester of paid leave after my term. A manager ‘dean’ or ‘head’ with similar responsibilities would likely make well over $100k/year in the US.

What has happened, on both sides of the pond, is that costs of administration, as a percentage of total university expenditure, have risen sharply, while 'instructional costs' (i.e., professors' salaries) have dropped dramatically as a percentage of total budgets. Many American universities (including mine), aware of the dubious popularity of such a shift, changed their budgetary categories in the mid 1990s to make it more difficult to track them. Sussex, the university so much in the news, did the same on its annual financial statements in 2007-08, just as it decided to hire 12 new Heads of Schools, a new managerial level. Perhaps Sussex could publish their salaries (at least in aggregate), and offer specifics on just how much outside grant money covers parts of their salaries, as it claims. Sussex might also provide details on new staff – both lower level ‘professional management’ and clerical – hired to work for this new bureaucratic level.

Sussex offers an ideal case of academic H1N1. The pre-2007-08 categories were “Administrative” and “Other, including clerical and manual”. The new categories, so redolent of the change discussed here, are “Professional management and professional support” and “clerical”. The former group has had explosive growth in two years: from 740 posts in 2007 to 814 in the 2008-09 budget; for the first time, in that budget, managers and support staff (other than clerical) outnumber the teaching and clinical staff (whose numbers have fluctuated sharply, from 773 in 2005 to 753 in 2007 to 808 in 2008-09).

Published budgets use broad, slippery categories, but a comparison of ‘staff costs’ for ‘Schools’ (i.e. faculty) and ‘Administration’ offers some insights into the process. Combining those two categories at Sussex, one finds that ‘administration’ accounted for 12.9% of the total in 2004-05 but for 15% in 2008-09. Perhaps it’s because Sussex has many more high-end salaries. The Vice-Chancellor’s salary has risen from £148k in 2004-05 to £227k in 2008-09. In 2004-05, only three people (one of them the VC) made over £90k at Sussex and no one made over £150k; in 2008-09, 20 (sic) people made over £100k, of whom six made £150k or more. Given that ‘professional management’ surely make most of those big salaries, it’s little wonder that nominal ‘staff costs’ for administration have risen 55.6% in the last five years, while nominal teaching costs have gone up about 30% (5/6ths of that nominal increase for teaching costs can be attributed to inflation, 15%, and to increased undergraduate enrollments, 10%).

Sussex differs only in minor details from other Anglophone universities. If we look at budgetary evolution over the past 20 years, the figures will show exponential growth in ‘professional management’ costs. Year after year, I read in the Georgetown Hoya, our student newspaper, that tuition must rise a given amount (3% for 2010-11) in part because of increased costs for faculty, yet the tuition increase always exceeds by a considerable amount the faculty pay increases: in 2010-11, we reportedly face a salary freeze, so the spread is the entire 3%. (To be fair, managers also face a freeze this year. Fringe benefits costs – such as the University’s contribution to medical insurance and retirement – will also go up.) At this point, Georgetown’s case of Academic H1N1 is terminal: a quick glance at a University organigram from 1990 and one from 2010 would show just how ‘managerial’ we have become. Memo to funding agencies: this model wastes astonishing amounts of money on unessential services!

Want to cut some 'fat' in university budgets? Given that universities exist to TEACH, cutting administration, sorry, management, makes a lot more sense than cutting teachers. In making necessary budget cuts in Higher Education, authorities should seek, above all, to preserve its two essential elements: teachers and libraries. They must seek, of course, to preserve as well the physical plant, and staff maintaining it, necessary for classes and related activities to take place. They have to provide for an administrative apparatus to keep the universities functioning. Perhaps they might want to consider a retro move: turn ‘professional management’ back into ‘administration’.

In looking at cuts, they would do well to compare the evolution in spending in those three broad categories, in percentage terms. Should they do so over, say, 20 years, they will find the third one to have grown increasingly gluttonous. Time for the three little piggies to go on a diet? Start with the real gluttons, the ones who take the largest mouthfuls at the trough.