A model for paralysis

OPINIE

13 oktober 2016

A model for paralysis

How the obsession for ever-changing accountantship models to manage education is deisintegrating the academic society, according to Paola Gori Giorgi and Francesco Battaglia.

“What can be measured, can be managed”, is a mantra of modern management practice, now ubiquitously applied in most production environments. However successful that may be when it comes to making cars, or hamburgers (see e.g. Rana Foroohar’s book “Makers and Takers” for a discussion of its failures and successes in the factory), it seems like a very uneasy fit for the university world, which should be aimed at nurturing young minds and ideas. And these are fields where quantitative measure of quality and worthiness, numbers ready for entry in a spreadsheet, are impossible to define.

Yet, in the last decades, there has been a major push towards the financialization of science and higher education, a push that is only recently starting to find widespread opposition (see e.g. Josef Früchtl’s recent article on Het Parool http://www.parool.nl/opinie/-stop-de-economisering-van-de-wetenschap~a4381532/  As a part of this push, universities were re-organized as a constellation of independent entities, faculties and departments, engaging in financial transactions with each other. That is, the university itself became a marketplace, endowed with free competition between its agents, pricing mechanisms and everything else a self-respecting market should have.

The pricing mechanism, or verdeelmodel is a way to translate the contribution of faculties, departments, down to the single employee, into a measurable quantity that can be turned into funding money for each entity in the marketplace. That, the story goes, should guarantee fairness because everyone receives funding depending on their effort, transparency because the spreadsheet tells it all, and efficiency because resources will be optimally allocated by the “marketplace”.

An important hint that the idea doesn’t quite work is that the model keeps on changing: just in these days, a new model on how to distribute the money for teaching between the different departments of the Faculty of Sciences (FEW and FALW together) is on the table.

A whole new game: each department is busy understanding if they will gain or lose with the new rules. For many, a matter of life or death, as the recent and less recent history of reorganizations and lay-offs at the VU demonstrates.

The new model is based on the hours that people have spent in actual teaching. The old model was based on the number of EC’s produced (how many students passed the exams, getting how many EC’s), reflecting closely how the central VU and Den Haag give money to the faculties, with the total money pot remaining unchanged.

With this new model, the faculty board hopes to address the enormous problems of tense working sphere, cynicism, and even fear that have been repeatedly reported within the two faculties. They believe that make compensation proportional to the actual teaching hours is more transparent, and that this will make people happier.

But why counting hours spent in the classroom would be more transparent? Certain courses require more preparation than others. Certain courses may actually require less contact hours than others, because it is important that students work by themselves, then requiring more hours for grading assignments. The model with hours is as perverse as the one with EC’s, with the incentive to use “accounting tricks” to inflate the number of hours that you or your department provided, in this way destroying the trust between colleagues.

But the discussion is beside the point. We believe that the problem is not on which parameters we should base the model, the problem is having a model. Turning each single department (and in some extreme cases even every single section inside a department, down to every single person) into a small business that needs to be sustainable using money they get in this marketplace is perverse and destructive of the core academic values. We, as teachers, should never think about the hours we dedicate to our students, to prepare our lectures, to be involved in the whole teaching process, as amounts of money that enter in a spreadsheet. Neither should we think as the students who pass our exams as money, as the model encourages us to do now. Never.

No “model” would make justice to the quirky, delicate, and personalized task that is education (or science, for that matter). For each model stems a strategy for maximizing ‘profit’, and that strategy never goes to the advantage of students, or science. Not to mention that just running the model requires an enormous amount of resources, with an army of people tasked with keeping track of impossibly complex transactions, and everybody else desperately trying to make sense of the numbers they get.

This internal marketplace is clearly a fiction: our salary is fixed and won’t be changed by this big Monopoly game. It would be much more sensible to have well thought policies to distribute teaching loads, with well prepared people in charge and more collegial decisions, which are totally missing right now. The Faculty should take responsibility for its employees, and not letting them compete with each other for being “sustainable”.

When we try to argue in this sense, we get, from administrators and other supporters of the current system, a fairly standard set of rebuttals.

First one, “if the departments want to be independent, then they have to take responsibility”. Except that departments are anything but independent, as they are basically held responsible of things they cannot influence, predict or plan. Their sustainability depends on how much money they get with the current model. If the model changes (and it does change), there goes your sustainability. Reorganizations and lay-offs ensue (real life story), with cruel blaming for your lack of efficiency. Not to forget that the models are so complex that often the finance administration loses track on the financial status of each entity. You may think that you have 100, but you have 80 instead (again, real life stories, at the VU and other Dutch Universities).

Second, “we need to know how to allocate money for teaching”. This seems absurd, quite frankly.The faculty management should have a vision about what their faculty is about, and using judgment (yes, this word is still in the vocabulary) to decide how to allocate money to the diverse programs. Good policies would keep readjusting the distribution of teaching, using people from different departments into different programs. We live in times in which most science is interdisciplinary, meaning that we often have people with rather diverse backgrounds in each department.

Third, “with this model everything is transparent and efficient. The effort is correctly rewarded, otherwise some people get a lot of teaching load and others get more time available to do research and be successful”. Here we should say that our experience is that the spreadsheets are anything but transparent, as they are overly complicated and depend on obscure details of the rules. And the spreadsheets lend themselves to accounting tricks. But, more importantly, the underlying assumption is that teaching is a punishment, which is not the case for many of us. Yes, I might teach more than you, so what? Not all teaching is the same. Some courses require more work, some less. It won’t be perfect, but it would restore academic values, recognizing that education is a complex task that requires a huge diversity of efforts that cannot be reduced to a spreadsheet. And just think of the time we would save because we do not have to check anymore that our hours or EC’s have been counted, no more meetings looking at spreadsheets with the cashflow for teaching, thinking on how to maximize the ``profit”.  We need a culture in which teaching has high status in the University, instead of only rewarding people for their science, or more precisely, for the amount of grant money they take in. Then they wouldn’t need to be forced into teaching by an Excel sheet and the threat of a reorganization.

The current system degrades teaching: it is profoundly disturbing for us to have to look constantly at spreadsheets in which students are transformed into money. This is not why we chose this job. We chose it because we love research and we love teaching, and we don’t want to think, not even in a single moment, that students mean money. Micromanagement is not necessary, and it just destroys the passion and the intellectual power that we put into teaching, which seems the opposite of ‘efficiency’ to us.

Furthermore, the current system relies on a quite narrow and short-sighted definition of efficiency: that is, maximize the number of graduates in the currently trending field of study, while minimizing the costs. But in this way we may actually deprive society of knowledge and skills (arcane, unpopular and costly as they be) that are fundamental for what we are and how we got here, and, as incredible as it may sound, may even be fundamental for the material well-being or survival of our society.

The last, and most condescending criticism we hear is “you are a nostalgic of old times, the world has evolved”. This is also the most fun to counter. In fact, the micromanaging, bottom line-driven way to run organizations is proving to be a disaster for education, healthcare, and for society in general.  Scientific progress has stagnated, compared to the pace of, for example, the early 20th century. Young academics are demoralized and without perspective, as many others of their generation are. The enduring financial crisis of the last decade is showing that it is exactly financialization and ‘quantitative management’ that are the ideas surpassed by history.

We are not nostalgic of anything, we want to move forward not backward. Those who still defend the current way are often people who have been successful in this system and are scared to leave it.
To move on, and build something better, we need to replace spreadsheets with judgment, collegial decisions, and a vision for what universities can offer to society.

Paola Gori Giorgi is University Research Chair Professor, Department of Theoretical Chemistry (VU) and Francesco Battaglia is neuroscientist, Radboud University Nijmegen.

Paola Gori Giorgi
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{ Lees de 6 reacties }

Curious to hear what other teachers and what our FB & CvB think on this matter.
I fear the new DVM is even worse than the current "verdeelmodel" within FEW, for reasons clearly outlined above, although on paper it is more reflecting real teaching effort compared to the ECTS model (only paying for students who pass the exam (as an example of the wrong incentives) & no distinction between a practical course or lectures).

Hi Paola,
I fail to understand why you argue against transparency; everybody should expect faculty board to be able to explain what they do, especially if it concerns money.
I fail to understand why you argue against teaching load as a basis for allocating the money for education; rewarding teaching load does not maximise the number it graduates; it rewards - fairly and transparent - the efforts of teachers.
I fail to understand why you find the DVM system so complicated. Nobody has said that it consists of spreadsheets, it will be a simple webpage on which teachers have to verify or correct the hours they spend teaching.
You are fighting a figment of your mind.

@Nico:
Choosing an arbitrary parameter (it can be ECTS, hours, number of students, or anything else, including linear combinations of some of those) and then pretending that this arbitrary choice sets the rules for transparency is not very credible. The choice of parameter(s) to define transparency is the non-transparent part. Change the choice of parameter(s) and the picture changes as you wish. I would not call this transparency, and framing the whole issue as "you are against transparency" does not address the point. The real point is that a faculty in which people must compete to be "sustainable" (also a very non-transparent concept based on a non-transparent choice of arbitrary parameters) is a place where the academic sphere is lost. High percentage of burn outs, cynicism and alike are then not very surprising.

Hello Paola, just read your article. I'm afraid I do not agree at all with your critique on the introduction of the so-called Teaching Load Model-model (and if I'm correct, nor does a significant part of the VU-Works Council). You write "The model with hours is as perverse as the one with EC’s, with the incentive to use “accounting tricks” to inflate the number of hours that you or your department provided, in this way destroying the trust between colleagues.". We have to be realistic here: there will be no model without (at least potential) perversities. It is always a question of choice for 'the lesser evil" . And than I would really hold that the perversities of output-models (based on market logic) are much, much more perverse than input-models (based on bureaucratic logic). The EC-model -taken to its extreme- means that faculties and departments make most 'profit' with massive on-line lectures (low labour costs), lenient entry requirements (more costumers) and lowering assessment criteria (higher returns). If you want credential inflation and us delivering bull-shit to students: be my guest! The perversities of input-models on the other hand are comparatively limited: Yes it will lead to endless discussions about the parameters. And yes: will not always be 100% realistic. So be it. If the parameters are transparent to all, we can discuss them, and improve them. And as far as the risk of 'inflating the hours" is concerned': in an input-based model inflating your TL doesn't pay off: you will receive more money as a department (or working hours as a lecturer), but you will have to work for it as well. And isn't that exactly what we want? Finally your remark that we should not work with models at all. That is -and I am sorry to say- completely utopian. The bottom-line is that university budgets need to be distributed among faculties, department and finally individual academic workers. And we better have a transparent system to do that, based on what people really do. I'll tell you one interesting side-effect of the TLM-model: it will also reveal that most teaching is done by a fairly limited section of the workforce: (1) young Assistant Professors on temporary contracts (2) temporary lecturers and (3) older Associate or Assistant Professors without career opportunities. And all this is the result of the output-based EC-model! So please choose your battles carefully, but also please be welcome to discuss this issue with us in the Works Council. Kind regards, Boris Slijper (lecturer in Sociology on a permanent contract, and member of the executive board of the Works Council).

I actually fully agree with Paola and Francesco, and I'm surprised to see that their argument is met with so much skepticism. I've worked at the University of St Andrews till 2009, and they have NO model at all and yet it works well.
The only thing that is requested there is that everyone teaches one full course per semester, and that's it - with regard to teaching. It's a perfectly workable system, but in the Netherlands it might only work if more money is given (back) to universities by the ministry.
In fact, in 2006, the Scottish government tried to change the university system as well there, making it more bureaucratic, and what happened: the lecturers and professors went on strike in June 2006. I couldn't believe my eyes. I had never seen university employees go on strike before. This is "not done" in the Netherlands. And that's the real problem in this country: we need to be willing to strike against governmental decisions, but virtually no-one at Dutch universities is willing to do so. Well then you can only suffer in silence...

I also fully agree with the substance of Paola and Francesco's statement. Indeed, I am heartened by it! I teach at UvA and cannot speak to the specifics of the situation at the VU (though I have no reason to doubt that the "hours" model may well be relatively less pernicious than what is currently in place there). Nevertheless, like Rens, I have experience teaching outside of the Dutch system where this kind of "model" for finely quantifying teaching does not exist. Having had my intellectual formation and teaching experience at a range of universities and colleges in the U.S., I initially thought my getting a job at UvA in 2013 was a great stroke of luck--an escape from the hyper-competitive and profoundly classist world U.S. academia. In particular, I saw the "hours" model of teaching as providing a kind of check against the overwork imposed upon Assistant Professors in the States. That is, until I soon realised how the "hours" model functioned as a lever for overwork.

What counts as an hour has effectively changed every year I've been here. One year an MA course I taught was allocated 150 hours, the next 100, the next 75. I was told to adjust the teaching accordingly, which, in principle, is possible if ethically difficult when faced with the legitimate demands of students for the labor-intensive work of meaningful feedback. But that is only half the picture. The other half is that I must keep looking for courses to make up for the lost hours, and the number of different tasks demanding my attention proliferate along with all the uncompensated peripheral tasks that attend them. I find myself hustling for hours. On top of the cognitive and emotional impact, this hustling is deeply corrosive of collegiality: there is a pervasive suspicion that some colleagues hoard hours while others are chronically short; the sorts of collaborative tasks which would normally be a source of intellectual exchange and solidarity reduce to calculations about hours (e.g. "Give a guest lecture in your class? Sure, but how many hours will you give me out of your already contracted allocation?")

Much as Rens notes of St. Andrews, the only model that regulates teaching at universities in the States (I've taught at University of Iowa, The New School, and Duke University) is the number of courses per semester. Typically it's 2 courses per semester (2:2) at research universities and 3:3 or 4:4 at teaching intensive colleges (and of course much more for the army of non-tenure track contingent instructors who now teach 70 percent of all courses.)

For this latter fact and many other reasons, I continue to feel I've escaped from many of the worst aspects of the political economy that organises research and teaching in the U.S. academy. The serious exception concerns how the "hours" model functions as a tool for what I think must be described as a form of stealth exploitation. Yes, the number of hours on my contract remain the same even as the number of courses I teach have nearly doubled in the short time since I arrived. If I had contracted to teach a 2:2 load and was unceremoniously informed that it was now a 3:5 load, for example, this would clearly appear as a violation of my contract.

That brings me to Rens' s invocation of the strike at St. Andrews. I joined the union VAWO when I came to UvA. And yet, at the very moment when one would expect the union to be present--that is, the determination of what counts as an hour and thus our given course load-there is no representation.

Does someone have a good explanation for this abdication on the part of VAWO?

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