This is not a detailed study in economics, but rather a view from inside the system. It’s occurred to me a few times, that as higher education (particularly in the US and UK) becomes increasingly commercialised and commoditised, there is pressure on academics to account for their time, and for it to be spent in revenue generating pursuits. These drivers come from Government, and also just the general post-recession context where every expenditure needs to be justified. I understand this and don’t think academics should be immune from the same pressures that society faces. But I have also felt that taken to its conclusion, it could create a system that undermines itself.
There is a lot of activity that an academic undertakes that acts as ‘glue’ holding together the whole scholarly practice. Consider the following tasks for instance:
- Reviewing journal articles
- Editing journals
- Examining PhDs
- Organising conferences
- Giving keynotes, workshops, seminars, etc
Now, although there is sometimes an honorarium associated with these, I would suggest that we don’t really fully cost them as activities and charge appropriately. The reason is that it is understood that this is part of what is required to make the whole system function. Someone from University X examines a PhD student from University Y, and later someone from Y examines one from Z, and so on. I get asked to examine quite a few PhDs. It’s generally both a pleasant thing to do, and also very useful in that it helps keep me up with the field also. You will sometimes get an honorarium for these, say £200, but if we were to fully cost it, then the figure would be closer to £2000 I expect. I’m a pretty quick reader and reviewer, but even so it takes me a couple of days to read a thesis, and then there is the viva day itself. I know colleagues who will spend much longer reading a thesis. Some of that reading takes place in work time, some in my own time, some could be counted as research time, some as a service to the other university. So it’s messy, but the point is we don’t make an attempt to properly cost it. And that is a really good thing. If we did then the administration involved would add significantly to the actual cost.
Then look at all those other activities listed above (and you can probably think of more). As there is increasing pressure on universities to justify student fees, to account for staff time, to monetise every aspect of the education process, I fear that such activities will be ‘realistically’ costed. The result of which might be to make them unviable. There is also a strong element of game theory once we start costing these activities – it would be to your institution’s benefit to be selfish rather than benevolent, ie to get more out of the system than you put in. And then others start acting the same. When someone suggests that we start costing these activities appropriately, my suggestion is you quote Billy Bragg to them: “The temptation to take the precious things we have apart to see how they work must be resisted for they never fit together again.”