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'Differentiation': The a-la-carte way to hire more university course instructors

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University instructor. Photo: James Snell/Flickr

I've written before about attempts in Canada to create more separation between university teaching, on the one hand, and university research, on the other. In 2009, I wrote this opinion piece about an attempt by five university presidents to each acquire a larger share of university research dollars. And last year, I blogged about a proposal for the Ontario government to create more separation between teaching and research within the university sector.

A recent proposal in Saskatchewan adds another dimension to the debate; apparently it's possible for a university to create such separation within itself. According to CBC News, the proposal would:

split the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan into separate teaching and research arms... Under the proposed restructuring, full-time faculty would spend most of their time on research, while doctors from outside the university would do most of the teaching.

The logic of "differentiation" appears to be as follows:

- It is in everyone's best interest to see high post-secondary enrolment. (If nothing else, it makes government look good...)

- Historically in Canada, a great deal of teaching has been done by professors who also do research. (In Ontario, it's typical for a university professor to be expected to teach two courses in the fall, and two in winter term.) When professors are not teaching, they are expected to do a combination of administrative work and research. (It is often said that a professors should spend 40 per cent of their time teaching, 40 per cent doing research, and 20 per cent doing administrative work.)

- Some policy wonks believe it would be more cost-effective to have a smaller proportion of teaching done by those who also engage in research. Under the status quo model, a professor could get $100,000/year to teach four courses (...and to do administrative work and research). But under a different model, perhaps $100,000 could buy instruction for eight courses (but without the research).

It's like an à-la-carte way of ordering new course instructors, the notion being that we'll pass on the potatoes (i.e. the research), but have a double order of meat (i.e. the teaching). Put differently, we'll pay more people to teach courses (which is indispensable), but we could do with a bit less research (which is relatively expendable).

The quest to find cost-savings is certainly one of the stated motivations here. I think that's what led to the arguments in Clark et al's 2009 book and in Clark et al's 2011 sequel (both of which appear to have the blessing of the McGuinty government in Ontario).

But I think another piece of this is prestige. When the so-called "Big Five" presidents made their pitch, I think they were largely motivated by the possibility of bringing more notoriety to their respective universities. They wanted to party with the big boys, like Harvard and Princeton and Yale. They wanted to win Nobel Prizes.

My main fear with this emerging trend is that I think that, for someone to be a good course instructor, they need to be actively engaged in research. Suggesting that teaching doesn't suffer when the instructor hasn't published more than three or four articles in the past decade, in my mind, is exceedingly naive.

If "differentiation" moves ahead, I think the teaching-only components of the system will start to look an awful lot like community colleges. Most of the best professors will try to avoid them like the plague, and students who graduate from them will have a relatively difficult time getting into graduate school.

I think such a system would move us towards a two-tier system, creating one wedge between "professors" and "course instructors," and another between students who study at real universities and students who study at fake ones.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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