Courting controversy

August 25th, 2010 by james

There’s nothing like an overtly contentious statement to bring in the traffic. And as they go, this is a pretty good one: “Why higher education is like a Ponzi scheme“.

The linked post is actually for a radio program, the content of which was based on this original article by a professor of psychology from the University of Kentucky. In it, she argues that there aren’t enough tenure-track jobs to support the PhD students coming through the system and that students are exploited to prop up the teaching and research of over-stretched professors:

“In short, I think academia shares many of the classic elements of a social trap: It is in most faculty members’ and departments’ best interests to recruit a lot of graduate students. Churning out PhDs is one of the major metrics of departmental ‘success’. Departments need graduate students to teach their classes, and faculty members need them to run their labs. Yet, as in any social trap, when everybody acts in their self-interest, a negative collective outcome ensues.”

Her solution? Not to accept any more PhDs:

“I’m no longer willing to pin my students’ prospects for their futures on an ephemeral job market that shines in the distance like a mirage … I don’t want to be part of the problem any more, and I think I will sleep better knowing that I am no longer contributing to an academic job market that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a Ponzi scheme on the verge of falling apart.”

I take issue with some of the article being rather loosely written. For example, she states that during the admissions interviews, “I ask them [prospective students] what they want to do with their PhDs. They all reply that they want a tenure-track job at a research university.” (emphasis added). Now this may have something to do with psychology as a discipline, and she does comment that applied jobs in that field are in decline, but anecdotally I would say that a large portion of post-docs, let alone PhDs, are in those positions not to gain an academic post, but to acquire unique skills for an increasingly competitive private sector. To pull a number out of the air, I would say maybe 1 in 5 post-docs goes on to an academic post. And in the UK, this is all part of degree inflation: 1385 full-time doctorates where obtained in 1994/95 and 14165 in 2008/9, a 10.2 times increase! In the same period, the total number of full-time HE degrees obtained (only) rose by a factor of 6.7, from 15601 to 104260 (data from HESA). So in this case, we shouldn’t stress too much about providing everyone with tenured positions.

The corollary to the “all PhDs want academic jobs” thing is that, assuming consistent cohort sizes, it implies we should have the same number of PhDs as post-docs as lecturers as professors, lining up along a smooth career path. Clearly this isn’t the case: academia is inherently hierarchical, always has been and always will be.

But this, I think, is where things get interesting. Let’s make the heroic assumption that PhDs (and post-docs) are cheap labour. Is this such a bad thing, provided that these individuals enter into the arrangement with open eyes? This site is, after all, called academic productivity: if PhDs and post-docs can do teaching and research more cost-effectively than professors and tenured staff, wouldn’t that be better from a societal perspective?

For those of us in the UK, this may not be a hypothetical question. There is currently an “Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance” underway, led by Lord Browne (ex-chairman of BP). It has a pretty broad remit to consider how higher education should be funded while ensuring access for talented individuals and one idea I’ve heard suggested is that professors should do less teaching and instead leave it to post-docs or dedicated teaching fellows. From an economic perspective, the appeal is obvious: post-docs earn a fraction of the salary of professors, who of course can better use their time securing grants etc. Indeed, this already happens to some extent with tutorials and labs, but why not lectures as well? Why should a world famous professor be teaching first year calculus?

Well there are a couple reasons. First, many professors enjoy it. Teaching enables them to keep in touch with students and the contact is not one way: students can often ask off-kilter questions that inspire new ideas for research. Second, for new lecturers, teaching is an essential part of professional development. It provides a valuable opportunity to practice presentational skills and, through the planning and preparation of course materials and activities, it can help lecturers to solidify their existing specialist knowledge while also learning new material.

Another rebuttal is that students will demand to be taught by professors. I can’t say the extent to which is true but clearly, higher education is increasingly being seen as a paid-for service with the accompanying “client” expectations. If I go to university X for course Y, it may be because of their Nobel prize winning professor and I may be very cross indeed if that person never sets foot in a classroom. To some extent, I think this is an issue of managing expectations. Universities should offer prospective students courses taught to the highest standards, supported by quality assurance mechanisms like training for teachers and regular feedback from students. But this does not mean that the professors should be doing the teaching per se. There’s no reason to think that a well-trained teaching fellow couldn’t develop and deliver a course as effectively (if not more) than a tenured professor who may excel at research but not teaching.

All of this is to say that calling academia a Ponzi scheme is (obviously) a bit sensational. However, academia is certainly a hierarchical institution and its functioning does depend on the cost-effective labour of PhDs and post-docs. Indeed under current budget constraints in the UK, this labour will become increasingly important and may substantially redefine the delivery of undergraduate higher education. It doesn’t mean that potential PhDs should be discouraged from entering the system but certainly there needs to be upfront clarity about their true role and career prospects.

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7 Responses to “Courting controversy”

  1. K.No Gravatar Says:

    It is a sensationalized statements but my department is actively expanding its graduate program and not including any clarity as you say about our true role and career prospects. And when the problem is brought up, they claim we can get jobs in other fields than research (I’m in the natural sciences and they suggest teaching or industry). My big problem with this is that I don’t need a PhD for the jobs in teaching or industry that are non-research-track. A PhD is a long, painful route to a non-research position, but the department keeps recruiting more students because it is in their best interest to maintain the supply of cheap effective labor.

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  3. Jessica PearceNo Gravatar Says:

    As a postdoc who is very pessimistic about the job market, I find feel there is some truth to the Ponzi scheme statement. I received my Ph.D. in the U.S., did my first postdoc in France, and am currently in a second postdoc in Spain. The situation seems to be equally pessimistic in all three countries. People of my generation are languishing in postdocs. One could argue that we are selecting the best through a severe bottleneck yet nepotism is rampant. I see fellow postdocs who are living on unemployment, while working the same hours in the lab, waiting for the next grant to come through. We have all spent so many years training for this specific job that we continue to live off of hope, missing stability, delaying children (in the case of many women), because it seems ridiculous to give up after six years in the Ph.D. program and 3++ as postdocs. It would have been kinder to cull us from the beginning.

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  5. Fr.No Gravatar Says:

    The PhD track is a deceitful scheme if conceived within the normative frameworks set by the current economic context, which consists of (1) a tendency to exclude any asset-pricing that is not immediately profitable, and (2) an indecisive job market that provides incentives to acquire high-level training and yet regularly discriminates against it.

    As for (1), the value of a PhD is not reducible to the career opportunities it creates, but this is increasingly how people tend to think of university work, at the detriment of all other dimensions, such as knowledge and individual emancipation.

    As for (2), the job market is primordially responsible for the current situation: clearly it is not the graduates’ fault if non-HER employers do not create highly skilled positions and do not hire them over engineers and other qualifications.

    I am left with ambivalent feelings here. The column is fundamentally right, something is problematic in the current state of affairs, but it fails at pinning down the social and economic forces behind the problem. The policy recommendation is now decades old: governments should create highly skilled workers and hire some of them in the public sector, while businesses should hire the remainder. For electoral, economic and cultural reasons, this recommendation is never applied, even though everyone knows it, at least in Europe, under the name of the ‘knowledge economy’ or any other incantation of it.

    Note: HER is Higher Ed & Research, and observation (2) is based on the job markets I know about (France, to a high extent, the UK, and probably USA to a lesser extent).

  6. Me and my 2 cents Says:

    Why is academia any different than other career path? Many fresh-faced business majors will aspire to levels of corporate leadership that only a few will attain. Moving up the education ladder, this disparity will seem more and more inequitable to the former MBA students who were successful enough to complete a degree program but still didn’t achieve the level of their original goals (for whatever reason). The same thing happens in competitive sports, music, art, etc. If academic departments want to select the best people for the jobs they need to fill, it seems that having a relatively large competitive pool is one way to facilitate reaching this goal. What would happen if departments were successful in creating career outlets for their PhD students to such a degree that these jobs actually reduced the pool of applicants for university jobs?

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