The “Factory” Model of University Education

Factory Education is a numbers-driven approach to university administration that is driving an emerging trend of performance-based funding for higher education institutions. While numerical measures are convenient for administrators, politicians and economists, they have little connection to genuine scholarship or educational quality. The “degree factory” model undermines the quality and value of university degrees, impedes scholarly activity in institutions that practice it, and fails to deliver on its economic promises. This is especially true in highly demanding fields like engineering, science, mathematics and medicine. Universities are pressured to increase total graduation numbers and success rates and to simultaneously speed up the average degree completion time. Meanwhile deficiencies in K-12 education are reducing the population of students who are adequately prepared for higher education.

The consequences should be obvious: it is easier and faster to get into a university and to complete a degree — albeit a degree with questionable value. From a legislative perspective, it seems ineffective to fill up a state’s population with half-baked degrees, especially at post-graduate levels (imagine a bunch of factory-educated doctors running our hospitals and clinics). In the long term, this practice will not create more professional success among the mass-produced graduates; it will instead obscure the talents of those who truly merited their degrees, thereby interfering with their success, and frustrating the HR offices that have to sort through a pile of junk diplomas. In short, it will become more difficult to match real talent with real opportunities.

The STEM economy

In so-called “STEM” fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), there has been a decades-long effort to continually increase production of new graduates. It is assumed that we will see amazing societal gains simply by issuing more STEM degrees (and more at higher levels). The theory is that these new STEM graduates serve as essential human resources needed to grow the STEM economy, which in turn drives economic growth in all other sectors.

Outcome-based funding is gaining ground in many states. The US Chamber of Commerce recently evaluated states’ implementation of outcome-based policy. Ohio’s policy is a typical example of outcome-based thinking:

By fiscal year 2011, Ohio was tying 5% of a community college’s funding and 10% of a four-year university’s funding to student success factors such as degree and course completion, with additional funding incentives for course completion in STEM subjects and for at-risk students.

What the article doesn’t mention is that university operating costs are increasing, while the states’ funding support is not. In effect, most outcome-based “incentives” are manifested as cuts to the universities’ budget. A budget FAQ at the University of Virginia states the problem clearly:

Second, the cost to educate a student continues to rise. University employees have not seen a comprehensive salary increase since 2007 while the cost of health and retirement benefits continues to grow. Meanwhile, as faculty retire and as the student enrollment expands, the cost of hiring new faculty is rising. The annual utility bill for the educational buildings will increase by $1 million to $3 million each year. The University is constantly re-investing in older buildings to chip away at the deferred maintenance backlog. And, as new buildings are constructed to meet enrollment growth, they will need utilities, custodial, and maintenance services.

My own university is in a similar position, and I’ve heard similar reports from colleagues across the country. Over the past five years, universities have been severely cut back, and yet perversely they have to expand in order to restore their funding levels. If a factory is required to produce more product with less raw material, it will most likely produce shoddy merchandise. Meanwhile the universities must acquire an increasing share of their costs from student tuition — so the outcome is a growing population of students burdened by debt and holding sub-par degrees.

So why are states pushing for outcome-based policy? In the STEM area, these policies seem to be motivated by the supposed “talent shortage”. I am skeptical that such a shortage exists, especially considering the number of unemployed or under-employed STEM professionals I have encountered over the years, many of whom leave the field altogether. One expert, Peter Cappelli, proposes in an IEEE Spectrum interview that the shortage is entirely an artifact of hiring procedures and prejudices:

Well, the employers, if you look at what the hiring managers are saying and what they’re looking for, they’re not, for the most part, hiring people out of college anyway or out of high school. What they want is three to five years’ experience. So the shortages that they report, the difficulty hiring, are for people who have quite specific skills, and those skills are work-experience based.

So the shortfall is in those people who can plug and play—that is, they can come right into our company and immediately contribute, because we don’t have time or resources to train or give them time for on boarding up-skilling [sic] that you’d get just by hanging around and getting used to the job. We can’t do that, so you’ve got to be able to do the job perfectly from day one. The only people that can do that are people who are currently doing the same job someplace else. So it’s obviously pretty hard to find people if that’s your definition—if you say, “We want to hire people, and they’ve got to be doing the job right now”—because as you’ve probably heard, a lot of employers won’t accept applications from people who are currently unemployed. So basically we’re saying we’ve got to hire from our competitors. And you know what? There is kind of a shortage of people if you say, “You’ve got to be working for one of our competitors doing exactly the same thing you’re doing now. That’s what we want, and it’s hard to find those people.” Well, it’s probably true, but that’s not a skills gap.

As someone who has been training students and placing them in tech jobs for nearly 10 years, I have definitely observed the phenomena that Cappelli describes. Perhaps this attitude is a by-product of the numerous tech bubbles that grew and burst over the past 15 years. There has almost always been some company on the rocks, filled with experienced specialists ready to be poached by some competitor. I’ve seen entire cottage industries get eaten by a few large corporations. During this process, the corporation can hire for very exact job descriptions; but that is not a good solution for sustainable growth.

Another motivation for factory-education policies is the supposed “skill gap” developing between the US and emerging economies like China, India and Brazil. American competitiveness, the theory goes, will be seriously diminished because these countries are producing a larger number of STEM degrees than we are. Even if that is true, there is no automatic reason to believe that all those STEM professionals are equal in competence to their US counterparts. What matters is the total supply of competent STEM professionals, not the raw number of degrees. TIME magazine considered the issue and made this observation:

The growing number of STEM workers in countries like China and India has policymakers on edge. You often hear that China and India are producing many more engineers than the United States, but when researchers from Duke University looked closely at the numbers, they found that what’s counted as an engineering degree in those countries would often be considered a vocational certificate or two-year degree in this country. The Duke team found relative parity between the United States and China and India when the engineering comparison was apples to apples.
There you have it: statistics are easily manipulated, and there is little value in numbers alone. Our real goal should be to maintain quality and rigor in our academies, and always to produce the best and most talented professionals. Our competitiveness will not be aided by any quantity of meaningless degrees, no matter how many meaningless degrees are possessed on the other side.

Consequences for scholarship and research

There are several ways in which degree quality is diminished by factory thinking. First, let’s assume that the university already contains the best and most talented students, let’s call them “geniuses”, and they will complete their degrees regardless. Then, to increase enrollment, we accept a larger number of students who are either under-prepared or under-talented, who we’ll call “laggers”. We put these students in the same classes as our geniuses. Under the traditional enrollment-based funding model, the university administrators would be satisfied at this point: we would squeeze a year or two of tuition from the lagging students, then let them quietly leave the program. Under the new outcome-driven model, we will instead ensure that the laggers continue to completion. They will sit beside our geniuses from start to finish. The individual educator has two options:

  1. Teach the laggers, and alienate the geniuses. Make sure the laggers learn something. The geniuses get nothing.
  2. Teach the geniuses while the laggers watch. Allow the laggers to muddle through in total confusion, and make sure they pass. But also make sure the geniuses get the maximum benefit.

Neither of these situations is good for the total population. The geniuses and the laggers are both hurt regardless. In the end, we will award degrees either to unskilled recipients or unactualized geniuses. I propose that we should focus on the geniuses and train them to be innovators. We can send the others to skill-oriented trade programs.

The institution itself has a third option: provide significant “remedial” services to bring the laggers up to speed before pumping them through their major programs. This means slowing the completion time and increasing tuition costs for those students, which is in some sense unfair to them, and also in conflict with the objectives of outcome-driven funding.

Consequences for students

At major universities, most faculty are not full-time teachers. Teaching may comprise only 30-50% of a professor’s role assignment. Furthermore teaching performance is generally a minor influence on tenure and promotion. Outcome-driven models introduce new teaching problems for professors, and they have no incentive to spend time solving those problems. University professors commonly adopt the attitude that “the best students will educate themselves” (spoken to me by a senior colleague). There is no reason to think that the laggers will receive any more attention than that. So, in my opinion, the downstream consequences for factory education are:

  • Students pay exhorbitant sums so that they can “self-educate”.
  • They graduate with a burden of debt, but not necessarily with real understanding or skills.
  • Truly talented students are unable to maximize their potential, and are less able to stand out from the pool of low-skill graduates.
  • Employers will complain ever more loudly about the “talent shortage” and “skill gap” because the new graduates fail to meet their narrowing expectations.

In conclusion, I see virtually no long-term benefits from outcome-driven policy. We have seen too much pseudo-innovation in education policy during the past decade. There is something to be said for the traditional practices that already produced so much progress and innovation in the past century. It is senseless for politicians and social theorists to try and “fix” a highly specialized system of education that is already operated by the most highly qualified experts in their respective fields.

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4 thoughts on “The “Factory” Model of University Education

  1. Pingback: Bill Gates on increasing university graduation rates « Chris Winstead

  2. Pingback: The modern university: is the bubble about to burst? | Chris Winstead

  3. Pingback: The modern university: is the bubble about to burst? | Fair Coin Toss

  4. Pingback: Bill Gates on increasing university graduation rates | Fair Coin Toss

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