Not too, too long ago in a land not too far away . . .

I was asked to participate in a university-wide committee that was charged with the task of setting the institution’s direction for the use of technology in teaching and learning. The committee consisted of roughly sixteen people, split more or less equally between faculty members and technology management. The effort failed on a number of levels.

The most obvious disappointment was that the committee ended up submitting two sets of recommendations, one from faculty and one from technology management. The two sides couldn’t agree on what the recommendations should include; indeed, they debated the actual purpose of the committee.

Debate is a university tradition. And making decisions about the strategic direction of technology is not to be taken lightly.

What disturbed me about the failure of the initiative, then, was not the classic management versus faculty divide.  Rather it was that the discussion operated at such a low level. It was simplistic, often uninformed.

It is safe to assume that the results of this committee could have a significant impact on the institution for years to come; not to mention the students and taxpayers that support it. But the people in the committee demonstrated an extraordinary lack of knowledge about fundamental aspects of what made the institution run. In particular, they had little knowledge of, and interest in, the organizational and financial dimensions of the institution.

The exact nature of the problem only dawned on me as a result of one particular moment during a committee meeting. In the midst of a discussion on the relative costs of different instructional models, a very senior academic delivered an impromptu speech to the committee on the need to set aside the questions of savings and costs and focus on “quality”. The other committee members responded with enthusiastic nods and affirmations.

Now, here’s my problem: anybody above the age of, say, 25, and that holds a college degree should know that quality must ALWAYS be understood in terms of cost.  Cost and quality two sides of the concept we call “value”. To discuss one without the other in this context is naïve, silly even.

I suggested as much to the committee members. The look on their faces and subsequent discussion made it clear that few if any of the committee members had ever actually struggled with striking the right balance between quality and cost (or “input” and “output”, if you will).  Yes, they could grasp it theoretically, and the participating faculty members may have even applied the concepts to a client for whom they consult, but they have never struggled with it in the context of the institution in which they work.

And I understand why this is the case. Many people can spend an entire career in higher education without ever measuring output in relation to input – particularly academics. While scholars will spend a decade working through the minute dimensions of a research problem, and will gladly debate the issue with colleagues endlessly, few apply this fervour and intellectual capacity to how the very institutions in which they work, are run.

I’m reminded of the recent debates about for-profit education in the U.S. Many commentators have railed against the high costs of for-profit schools, but they often do so without any knowledge (and/or concern) of the factors that produce different tuition levels between different types of schools, such as the state subsidies, tax-exemptions status, and so forth. The question of cost is far more intricate than it is often discussed: Cost to whom, relative to what other systems, etc.

Again, debate is excellent. But this lack of literacy about financial and organizational issues is a liability, if we believe – as many do – that we need to rethink how we finance, organize, and deliver high quality college education to an ever-increasing percentage of the population.

I was glad, then, to receive a copy of the book “Doing More with Less: Making Colleges Work Better”, Springer, 2010 from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP). A collection of essays edited by Joshua Hall, the book looks at a number of pertinent issues such as how the pursuit of institutional prestige interacts with cost, how the financial aid system influences tuition increases, the increased use of outsourcing to manage costs, and the use of standardized curriculum at for-profit schools.

Given the past work from the CCAP I expected a more blunt support of market-based management approaches to higher education. While you’ll find this perspective, certainly, the majority of the book provides the information readers need to come to their own conclusions. I recommend it highly.

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