What Socio-Economic Responsibilities do Universities Have?

I’ve written a fair bit about academia from the outside in: about how to be an academic outside of the traditional TT path, about how to prepare yourself in graduate school for an academic career, and about why marketing – my own career path, with which I’m very happy – could be an excellent choice for humanities PhDs who are preparing to leave the academy as a primary career.

Today I’m going to make the first in a multi-part series of blog posts about the responsibilities that universities have, in my view: to their students, to their staff and faculty, and to the society that funds them. Often, I would argue, universities are not fulfilling their responsibilities to their stakeholders. This is due in part to difficult financial limits, in part to financial decision-making that I would question, and in part to a value system that, I believe, sometimes values the wrong things.

(A caveat to all of this: I happen to teach part-time for two institutions that pay well and that value the contributions of part-timers, which is much more common in Canada than it is in the States, I think. The universities where I teach, in particular, have innovated their offerings and their employment policies in a way that generally benefits both students and faculty. But it is, perhaps, because I am to some extent on the outside of these issues that I feel more invested in questioning them.)

Overview: the retail academic, the under-educated student, the frustrated graduate

The challenges of the part-time academic are well-documented. The report “Who Is Professor Staff – And How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes?”, prepared by the Centre for the Future of Higher Education, is one of the most incisive and comprehensive studies of the current system’s effect on higher ed.

The percentage of teaching done by low-paid, low-security post-secondary teachers has skyrocketed in the past decade, and we all know how bad this is for them. But what sometimes gets lost in this rhetoric is the effect this system has on the students being taught. After all, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And if teaching conditions deteriorate, then learning conditions will do the same, no matter how much considerable effort a teacher makes to mitigate that harm. A part-time professor who must teach eight writing-intensive sections of an introductory English class in order to make ends meet will simply have less available time to meet with and support students outside of class. A school that pays teachers only for the hours they are in the classroom provides a specific incentive for teachers to limit their outside-of-class support of students, support that full-timers are obligated to provide. Simply put: the more part-timers replace full-timers in the system, the worse off students will be. This is not a problem of insufficiently dedicated instructors; it is a sheer physics problem.

Further to this issue – in fact, another facet of the same issue – is the trouble with unemployed graduates. Professors are often students’ first professional references, and part-timers are often either unable or unavailable to provide these references for former students. The transient nature of the job means objectively less support for new grads who took classes with these profs. Of course, it is also a student’s responsibility to keep in touch with former professors and to build their side of the relationship, but it is much more difficult to do this with a professor who’s teaching part-time.

So, the verdict seems clear: for faculty and students, the current set-up is less than ideal. But is it the best way forward for the universities themselves? Is it even the only way for universities to survive in the current economic climate? Or is it an unnecessary redistribution of resources along the lines of a for-profit corporate model?

Public vs. private

It would seem initially important to make a clear distinction between public and private universities and four-year colleges. Here in Canada, of course, all universities and colleges – except for Quest University, an outlier – are publicly funded, in a similar but not identical method to that of state schools in the United States. Similarly, universities in the UK are publicly funded, and in fact tuition fees are pretty much standard across the board. In the States, though, you have both public and private universities and colleges, with tuition at some private schools exceeding $40,000/year.

So, do American private universities have less of a responsibility to society than do universities that are publicly funded? Should they have more freedom to structure themselves according to a corporate model, including the use of casualized labour, than would a government-funded institution?

The fly in the ointment here is the extremely widespread use of US government-subsidized student loans to fund education. In fact, the majority of student loans taken out in the United States are subsidized by the government, which means that plenty of “private” education is publicly funded, just in a more indirect way. Of course, this is no different to corporations that are “publicly funded” through tax breaks or bailout funds – remember how General Electric paid no federal taxes on over $5 billion of profits in 2010? – but it speaks to the fact that there is no bright-line distinction between publicly funded and privately funded higher education.

The upshot? The majority of higher education in the United States, Canada and Europe is, in some way, paid for with public funds. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the higher education systems elsewhere in the world to make any kind of educated commentary, so I’m leaving them be for now. But in North America and (much of) Europe, this is the status quo.

So what effect does, or should, this have on the economic and social responsibility of the university towards the society whose students it educates?

Education for the greater good?

One of the biggest questions here is, I think, the role of education in a society. Are universities – and should universities – be primarily concerned with meeting their own bottom lines, with running themselves (both in and of themselves and in the context of their immediate communities), or with contributing educated citizens to the greater society in which they exist? Inasmuch as universities must fulfill all of these responsibilities, how should they be balanced?

And what happens when financial obligations and/or constraints force a university’s hand? To what extent does a university’s nature as an inherently public-private partnership determine its responsibility to each stakeholding party? Do different types of universities, with different constituent groups and student demographics, have different levels or types of responsibility in different contexts?