The modern university: is the bubble about to burst?

A few articles caught my attention recently, each calling attention to the failing economics of university education and research. We all know that the system is growing, and costs are growing while funds are either stagnant or shrinking. At the same time, tuition costs are growing rapidly. These trends have been ongoing for the past decade, and point toward one conclusion: our system is larger and more expensive than we (collectively) want it to be. I’m going to argue that this fits the generic definition of an economic bubble. I’m not an economist, and I don’t want to dive into technical definitions of bubbles and non-bubbles, but I’d like to consider the bubble metaphor in terms of the following situations:

  1. The costs of conducting research exceeds the total public investment.
  2. The production of doctoral graduates exceeds demand for new PhDs in the job market or academia.
  3. The financial sacrifices of pursuing an academic career vs the satisfaction obtained from that career.
  4. The individual costs of obtaining a degree vs its effect on earning potential.

In the sections below I write about each of these “bubbles” individually, and how they present multiple crises for the academic enterprise.

1. The research funding crisis

According to the Huffington Post, nearly 20% of US researchers have considered leaving the country because of inadequate funding in the US. The article names sequestration as the main cause, but this has actually been a steadily developing problem for years — each year there are more students, more graduates, more faculty, more researchers — all of them competing for resources that haven’t been growing for a long time. The article acknowledges the deeper issue:

the purchasing power at the Department of Defense, NASA, the Department of Energy, and NIH has declined by between 20 and 30 percent since 2004 because the research budgets for those agencies has not kept up with inflation.

Since the amount of federal money hasn’t kept pace with the costs of doing research (much less the costs of a growing research workforce), universities have been adding more internal investment, reaching a record $12B in self-investment R&D funding by US universities in 2011 (source: National Science Foundation).

2. The personnel crisis.

I’ve written before (here and here) about the problem of over-producing doctoral-level graduates when there is not sufficient demand to absorb them into research careers, either in the private sector or in academia. One post-doc’s frustration is highlighted in the Huffington Post article:

I am a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University. I’m in my 4th year here….  I’m now entering the job search phase. I want to do cancer drug discovery/target validation research. However, due to the poor economy, companies tend to cut drug discovery programs in favor of increased marketing on the “sure thing” drugs they already have for sale. In addition, all of the jobs I have received call backs on are postdoctoral positions, meaning my salary would not change. After 10 years of training, I’m still not considered trained? Basically, the companies know they can get away with paying someone a smaller salary for the same amount of work. This is why very few scientist/sr. scientist positions are available in industry. Academia, as you are well aware, is struggling immensely. The sequester (and overall state of the economy) has prevented me from progressing. I’m stagnating. I’m 32 years old with no retirement funds. I just want a job doing bench science, which I’ve spent a decade training for. I know nothing else. I sincerely wish I had not chosen this path, but the future was so bright in 2003. It’s quite humiliating to see the incoming graduate students watch me struggle to find a job.

In my limited experience, this is an increasingly common story. Those who pursue scientific careers can supposedly afford to incur large student loan debts because they expect to have high earning potential. Furthermore they can supposedly put up with years of poverty and stress because they will receive immense satisfaction and fulfillment from their lives of self-directed research. But the jobs are full, and forces are working to corrode the once-famous satisfaction associated with academic and scientific careers. There is evidence that graduates face chronic underemployment in many disciplines, even in high-demand fields like electronic engineering:

The Chronicle article has some of the most blunt statements:

Looking at BLS data for 2008, over 10,500 persons with Ph.D. or professional degrees were employed as “cashiers” (excluding gaming); over 27,400 were retail salespersons; and well over 4,700 were hairdressers, hairstylists, or cosmetologists. My sidekick Chris Matgouranis found 10 occupations like these: the ones listed above plus waiters and waitresses, landscaping workers, amusement and recreation attendants, receptionists and information clerks, secretaries (except legal, medical, and executive), truck drivers (heavy and tractor-trailer) and electricians. Collectively, these occupations had well over 74,000 with doctorates or such professional degrees as a J.D.

This seems crazy. In academia our primary performance benchmarks are research funding, peer-reviewed publications, and new doctoral graduates. We are fighting tooth and nail over an evaporating resource pool, and enthusiastically expanding our population beyond any reasonably supportable level. Yet if we try to scale back, then we are deemed under-performers and our own jobs may be in jeopardy (even post-tenure).

As a corollary to the personnel crisis, there is now a widely acknowledged problem related to the volume of publications submitted for peer review. The “publish or perish” mantra of academia has been exaggerated to the point that peer-review outlets are completely swamped with hastily written, low-quality articles — too many to be reviewed. According to an article by the Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education:

The challenges of assessing the current and future state of peer review are exacerbated by pressing questions of how the significant costs of high-quality scholarly publishing can be borne in the face of calls for alternative, usually university-based and open access, publishing models for both journals and books. There is additionally the insidious and destructive “trickle down” of tenure and promotion requirements from elite research universities to less competitive and non-research-intensive institutions. The entire system is further stressed by the mounting — and often unrealistic — government pressure on scholars in developed and emerging economies alike to publish their research in the most select peer-reviewed outlets, ostensibly to determine the distribution of government funds (via research assessment exercises) and/or to meet national imperatives to achieve research distinction internationally. The global effect is a growing glut of low-quality publications that strains the efficient and effective practice of peer review, a practice that is, itself, primarily subsidized by universities in the form of faculty salaries. Library budgets and preservation services for this expansion of peer-reviewed publication have run out. Faculty time spent on peer review, in all of its guises, is being exhausted.

Why are we doing this? We researchers are now creating so much junk that we can’t even sort through it all. The sad reality is that there are many academics who build successful “junk factories” that help them impress local administrators in small institutions. Many of us have observed cases where (arguably) a junk producer has enjoyed success while a high-quality researcher was punished for producing fewer publications.

3. The satisfaction crisis.

In an editorial titled “Why I’m quitting the academy,” published this week in the Times Higher Education, Alessandra Lopez y Royo wrote about her diminishing satisfaction:

When I received my doctorate in art and archaeology nearly a quarter of a century ago, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to leave the academy….

But the sense of unease that I had begun to feel soon after my appointment gradually became overwhelming.

I dreaded the start of each academic year. I rarely had an opportunity to draw on my subject area expertise in my teaching, even at postgraduate level. Instead, I was expected to be a jack of all trades, lecturing to a student body whose first-years frequently required remedial English and who almost all refused to read beyond lecture notes, ignoring the bibliographies I carefully put together.

Nor were we allowed to censure them: we all had to bow to the managerial imperative of treating them as customers who have to be satisfied, allowing them to show impatience and lack of respect with impunity. And despite their inability (or unwillingness) to understand what studying for a degree entailed, inflated grades prevailed.

But we also short-changed the students in some ways. For instance, we were never totally honest with them about their employment prospects, even though I know that a significant number are now unemployed and in debt, and many are working in completely different fields….

Meanwhile, the “impact” agenda, which now drives the research agenda, is foreign to the humanist values that attracted me to academia as a space of free, non-instrumentalist critical thinking. I feel part of an oppressive and hierarchical structure that demands the compromise of individuality and creativity in order to fit the mould.

Roehampton’s most recent research excellence framework-inspired recruitment drive made me question whether I still wanted to be part of this system. Young, promising academics who had taught in the department on fixed-term contracts for several years were not given a chance because the university was chasing world-leading publications, so the department had to fill up with readers and professors.

Nor is my experience unique. Go to any department in a middle- to low-ranking university and you will hear similarly woeful tales. When Margaret Thatcher decided both that polytechnics should become universities and that the principle of the free market should be applied to higher education, she sealed the new universities’ fate. With such an uneven playing field, they must jockey for any advantage, and rigour is often the first casualty.

Although Dr. Lopez y Royo is writing from a background in the arts and humanities, her complaints resonate with some of my own experiences in engineering. The competition for funding and the demand for “impactful” research compels us to pursue research from a short list of hot topics. Even though I’m a tenured professor, I still don’t feel free to pursue the deep, fascinating topics that first attracted me to this profession. I’ve spent most of my career chasing after brief, vanishing opportunities, not answering grand questions.

Apart from the minor complaints one might have about personal career satisfaction, Lopez y Royo hints at another problem that is perhaps harder to deal with: moral uncertainty about our relationship to students and junior colleagues. She refers to “short changing” students. She also expresses unease about being part of the system that creates so many roadblocks and dead-ends for young professionals. It is a tough experience to see junior colleagues abused or exploited, and to know that you can’t do anything to improve their treatment. Each year we see hundreds more fresh graduates ready to compete for a tenure slot. With so much oversupply, universities are quickly learning that we don’t need to treat them individually with much value.

4. The tuition crisis.

In addition to all the other crises, the system is facing a well-known explosion in tuition costs and instructional expenses — a problem which is virtually independent from research funding. According to Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post, research universities have increased instructional spending faster than they have increased tuition, while state and local support has diminished. According to Matthews, universities are “just throwing money around and getting it from wherever.” This creates a complex picture:

Between 2000 and 2010, the average net tuition — that is, the tuition actually paid after financial aid is taken into consideration — at public research universities (the second biggest category of school by enrollment) increased from $5,469 to $8,611, a difference of $3,142. Their spending per full-time student increased from $33,208 to $37,125, or $3,917.

This can’t be explained merely by government policy. The universities weren’t keeping spending the same and just financing it through different means. State and local subsidies fell by $1,732 per full-time student from 2000 to 2010, but federal subsidies increased by $2,927 per student, and profits from associated endeavors like hospitals increased by $1,952 per student.

In fact, overall revenue increased by $5,793 per student, almost double the increase in per-student spending. Public research universities could have kept tuition stagnant and still had $2,651 more per student to work with, which could finance a good share of the actual spending increase. But they wanted more money than that, so they increased tuition too. Cost shifting, à la what’s happening at other public schools, doesn’t really have anything to do with the increases in public research university tuition.

These “bubbles” indicate that our system of higher education and research is bigger than we collectively want it to be. Soon (if not already) students will begin rejecting the debt burden imposed by university education, and enrollments will stagnate or perhaps decline. Some have argued that the debt burden already exceeds the payoff of college education. Underemployment has emerged as a new normal for a significant percentage of college graduates. Unless these trends reverse, it must eventually cause a diminishing trend in college enrollments. That means less tuition money, and less funding for academic staff — ultimately compounding the personnel crisis.


The academic enterprise has already grown beyond our ability or will to support it. Here are the options:

  1. Let the system “self correct.” In other words, let it crash and allow universities to downsize programs and sell off property until they become sustainable. Nobody likes this idea except crazy libertarians and cowboy free-marketeers.
  2. Increase federal funding for research and subsidies for education. Everyone in academia wants this, but it isn’t enough (or even necessarily the best thing to do). We’ll keep pushing the envelope and — even worse — we’ll keep systematizing evaluation metrics for university staff that inevitably favor “junk factories” and “paper mills.” Quality work will be increasingly drowned in the noise.
  3. Change the philosophy and/or psychology of everyone involved. Somehow this seems more likely than political change.

In my opinion, it would be nice to see a shift in attitudes so that administrators are concerned less with raw numbers, faculty are less concerned with fast-paced competition, greater respect is shown for quality over quantity, and due credit is given for making modest progress on hard problems. Unfortunately given the history of crisis management in the United States, I’m afraid we may be in for a crash.


2 thoughts on “The modern university: is the bubble about to burst?

  1. Pingback: Too many PhDs — will rising career stress diminish the quality of research? | Chris Winstead

  2. Pingback: Too many PhDs — will rising career stress diminish the quality of research? | Fair Coin Toss

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