Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Universities: What's wrong with them?

An article here questions the wisdom of the University system in the modern world. It approaches the question from a historical and Catholic slant, given the importance of the University system of the Middle Ages, adding the question of what happened to them.

Today I would like to use some of my previous experiences in the university system as instructor, TA, grad student, (and undergrad) to discuss the reason that universities no longer perform as they used to. My experiences are coloured by my Canadian experience, and some of my observations may not necessarily apply to universities in the US or other countries.

I believe that the fundamental change in universities occurred when they became State-funded institutions.

When the university system began, its only objective was to train priests. Apparently, it did so very well. Over the last several hundred years, universities began to train other types of professionals, and currently some professions require a tremendous level of technical sophistication. Interestingly, despite the concentration and specialization that now occurs in technical training, university graduates are surprisingly useless in the business and technical world. How can this be?

I would submit that in the early days of training priests, the students were taught to read and write, and debate (or comment on) articles of history, philosophy. The trainees obtained a deep knowledge of their subject matter, and debates and commentaries made them proficient in writing, extemporized discussion, argument, and rhetoric.

One of the defining conditions of the early universities was their independence of local and papal authority. This concept is continued today in the institution of tenure, as well as the general belief that universities, despite being funded by the State, should not be controlled by it.

Tenure is a topic that has generated a great deal of debate. In principle, it is intended to broaden academic freedom by protecting professors from dismissal if they pursue unpopular forms of research. There are those who protest that it can lead to laziness on the part of professors who achieve it (a risk taken by the research institution); also those who protest that tenure has actually narrowed academic freedom, as young researchers must adhere closely to the norms of their field in order to survive their tenure hearings (Michaels, 2004).

(The same may be said about government grant applications).

New ideas emerged during the period from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, one of the most important of which was the notion that the world could be investigated using the tools of observation and reason; furthermore, natural phenomena could be understood and explained purely in terms of material causes (i.e., no longer necessary to describe occurrences as "the work of God"). Simultaneously, the currently accepted "scientific method" came to be selected as the preeminent technique for understanding natural phenomena.

Where should these new practitioners of science work and teach? They naturally gravitated to the universities, as that was where most of them had been educated. Indeed, much of what we now call science was developed by individuals training for religious purposes, and there was an underlying philosophy suggesting that Honour was done to God by learning as much as possible about His Gift of the World.

Unfortunately, politics entered the academic world as soon as their were academic honours to be had. For instance, the Royal Society came down hard on Liebniz for daring to publish on calculus before the great Newton, which greatly influenced our thinking about the nature of the Universe (part of which I have discussed here).

The addition of a secular approach to science to the place of religious training did not significantly set back the university system. When I look at the problems that universities have today, they mostly come down to one thing.


Why didn't universities in the Middle Ages have the kind of cash flow problems that modern universities have? Firstly, they were financed differently. There was some money that may have come from the early State, but most money came from parishes (i.e., donations) or from fees and tithes paid by the students themselves. Nowadays, most universities receive operating funds from the State. Research money is also granted to individual faculty by the State, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

Today, universities have three functions, each of which interferes with the others.

Firstly, they are there to provide instruction. Obviously. They are presented as such to taxpayers, who are responsible for the bulk of their funding. This funding will only be willingly provided so long as middle-class parents are convinced that their children will receive a good and useful education there. If fees rise too much, or if there is a sense that the universities are not there primarily for the education of students, there will be a backlash against them.

Secondly, they are to be centres of academic research. Here is the first problem: in my time as a grad student at the University of Toronto and at Memorial University of Newfoundland, it was abundantly clear that as far as the university and faculty were concerned, academic research was the sole purpose of the university. The teaching of students was something to be avoided (and which could definitely be avoided by the more important faculty). Unfortunately, the middle-class taxpayers who fund the university are under the delusion that the academic research at the university is a secondary priority which is only carried out insofar as it leads to improving the quality of education received by the students at the school.

(If not for the problem of  money, the combination of teaching and research at one place works. I found that teaching could be a galvanizing influence on research and vice versa.)

The third function of university's arose once the universities became funded by the State. Once this happened they became an agent of State power, and a reflection of prominence of the State. Initially this wasn't so bad, as they were well-funded. But once funded by the State, universities fell into a trap--they were no longer free to set tuition as high as they would like.

In the past a university might charge enough for tuition to be able to afford the best teachers and the best research facilities. For a short time after the conversion to a State-funded enterprise, they were sufficiently funded to continue. But over the years, the State funding as a proportion of the university's total budget has declined; there is increasing political pressure against raising tuition (with the "everyone should be able to get a university education" mantra); and poor economic performance has shrunk endowments and pension funds--all of which has put severe pressure on the budget of the modern university.

So the third function of the university is to be a machine for raising money. In fact, this is now the highest purpose of the university. Of course, the university wishes to project the image that teaching is its highest purpose. To increase the university's coffers, it is necessary to lower costs wherever possible. As the principal cost to the university is the salaries of its faculty, the best way to lower costs is to find ways to reduce the pay of the highest salaried faculty, which may be done by reducing their teaching loads and increasing the number of courses which have large numbers of students serviced by a minimum of teaching resources.

For instance, in my last years teaching, I found myself teaching courses of 500 or more students, armed only with two TAs who were given a total of about 100 paid hours for all marking and course administration. The lack of TA hours meant that there was very little marking per student, a factor which lead to all evaluation to be via multiple-choice exams.

Multiple choice exams are just dandy for "testing" on the cheap, but they aren't helpful in determining whether the student has any depth of knowledge of a subject. These students could not be receiving a great education. What's worse is that the number of this type of course has only grown, for the simple reason that they only cost about $15,000 in human resources (plus a fixed cost for class space) in exchange for which the university receives $500,000 in tuition fees.

There was one semester where I taught two such courses as well as three smaller courses ("real" courses, including lab work or essay writing).

Now to be fair, there are real courses in the university. One course I particularly enjoyed teaching was a senior-level course in the philosophy of science, which was aimed at students who were planning to move on into graduate school. My own education lacked such a course, and it was only near the end of graduate school that I began to appreciate how much I could have used it. This course used nearly the same level of human resources as the 500+ student course, but this one only had about fifteen students. (My other favourite course from this time was about logic and formal systems).

Clearly the large courses are being used to subsidize the teaching of the smaller ones. But that isn't the only form of subsidization.

In Ontario universities in the 1990's, the amount of government funding for a graduate student was approximately five times that of an undergraduate. At the time, tuition might have been about $4000 Canadian for a full year, but the government funding for an undergraduate was about $6000 per year, but the university received over $30,000 per year for each registered graduate student. The funding disparity led to what appeared to be a cynical ploy to "harvest" graduate students for their grants.

The information below came to me during contract negotiations for an Ontario TA union in the 1990's and may not exactly reflect what is happening at present in Ontario or anywhere else.

There were restrictions placed on graduate students--any grad students gainfully employed for more than ten hours per week would not be funded--consequently the university placed restrictions on grad student employment, the key one being that they could not be paid for more than ten hours per week. The universities have always maintained that this policy (see section 1.3) is in place in order to ensure that the student would progress satisfactorily.

Since employment income was the only income for many graduate students, as teaching assistants they had to paid a very high hourly wage in order to get by. Any student caught working more than ten hours per week could be removed as a full-time student. Depending on the department, loss of full-time status could mean loss of office space and other departmental support.

Furthermore, the funding for graduate students had a limited duration--two years for Master's candidates and four years for doctoral candidates (IIRC). In some departments at one of my former universities, it was common for students who overran these time limits to suddenly lose most of their privileges, the end result being that such students were far less likely to succeed in acquiring their degree. From the department's perspective, such students were no longer a resource and it was necessary to remove them so that fresh graduate students could be planted. (For the record, the geology departments at my previous universities did not engage in such behaviour, but there were numerous other departments which did, particularly in the Arts).

Such behaviour certainly gave the appearance that the university was interested merely in harvesting whatever funding the government granted for the students, but had little care whether there was a delivered product (in the form of a freshly minted M.Sc (or M.A.) or Ph.D.

Also, universities had an interest in increasing graduate student enrollment, possibly at the expense of undergraduate enrollment. As graduate students are involved in research, academic research becomes more important than undergraduate research. Again--the universities will tell you that this is not so, because the typical middle-classed parent is not as interested in graduate school for their kids as they are in undergraduate or professional school.

State funding and the poor economy (itself a reflection of State involvement) has made universities dependent on alternative methods of funding and has drawn so much of the university's efforts that its twin functions of teaching and research are significantly impaired.


Michaels, P. J., 2004. Meltdown: the predictable distortion of global warming by scientists, politicians, and the media. The Cato Institute, Washington, D.C., 275 p.

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