Published on 2014/10/15
The Hidden Cost of Efficiency-Related Change
Efficiency-related changes, caused by the commoditization of the postsecondary space, may offer some returns for the wider institution, but have a negative impact on the faculty.
The term efficiency, left unqualified, creates suspicion when applied in a higher education context. This is not suggesting faculty or administrators have no concern with efficiency. Rather, the question on the table is: do all efficiency initiatives and processes create positive outcomes for faculty and students, or just lower costs? Or, is a certain amount of inefficiency inherent to create the environment for effective learning?

Education, after having been deconstructed and reconstructed as a series of processes and design steps made for efficient delivery, often seems comfortable, by regulation, accreditation or legislation, relegating faculty as subject matter experts and administrators as compliance regulators, while still seeing declines in learning outcomes. Efficiency should never come at the expense of academic freedom to explore pedagogical approaches to improve the learning experience. Inefficiency has many names and labels, one being blame. For example, faculty can be seen as the reason for learning deficiencies, or worse, a cost rather than the solution for improvement and education innovators.

However, in any discussion of efficiency is couched the subtle discussion on costs (we can call it creative names but it all comes back to costs). No administrator wants to cut academic costs and no administrator wants to lose the ability for a school to continue to be solvent. Academic freedom needs to be seen within a return on investment or education value frame where return is defined as achieving learning outcomes and value as student success. Efficiency affects faculty by creating new types of discussions that challenge tenets such as academic freedom contrasted with the reality of operations (physical plant and overhead) efficiency. We don’t need to destroy the academy in the name of efficiency, but we do need to consider how the academy best meets the needs of a dynamic society — one that has changed.

What seems to have taken a back seat is common sense approaches to collaboration for student success. We have silos in higher education that remain vaulted positions, lines we don’t cross; information technology (IT), legal, compliance, academics, faculty, staff , administration … and the labels within each get even more creative. Faculty may feel IT holds them back from innovation, while administration wants a standard course design, and each department holds to their traditional beliefs, creating a great deal of inefficiency in the entire organization, and all in the name of providing a quality learning experience.

Of course, the issue may be one of perspective, wherein each department retains its perspective of efficiency which may or may not be in conflict with another department. For example, faculty may believe efficiency is measured by their ability, and academic freedom, to use technology innovations as a way to effectively provide pedagogically-sound educational experiences. IT may define efficiency as a set of standards that protects the college’s information structure while providing students with a safe set of tools for education. College operations may be dealing with budgets, compliance and regulations that affect both. And while all three stakeholders have a goal of helping students and being efficient, a cursory glance shows their goals are in conflict. IT may want to approve education technology and faculty may want to test education technology immediately while operations works to retain accreditation, or remain complaint.

Everyone is trying to be efficient: but the sum of the efficient parts may create an inefficient whole.

There’s no question that efficiency affects faculty, often negatively. As long as a part of education is a funded equation, there will be costs to manage and returns on those costs expected, which will begin to look more like an investment. Looking at education as a series of costs suggests a business approach to all facets of education, which is not always a welcome discussion. This affects faculty the primary objective for faculty is improving learning outcomes and providing quality education, while costs to students are a primary criterion for the rest of us. Unfortunately, the times in which we live call for sacrifice and compromise in the name of efficiency. Colleges are forced to manage diminishing resources and increasing costs, while maintaining high standards of education.

It may also be the new reality: education has become more of a commodity as most jobs that provide a living income require some type of college education, and education as a way to improve the intellectual quality of life and society is becoming passé. Quality of life is replaced with the basic tools for existence in life. The change in focus means those who pay tuition aren’t always the parents but also the students.

All of society is looking for that return on the education investment, squeezing every potential benefit out of a dollar. Efficiency is one process for accomplishing the task. But let’s not insult anyone’s intelligence; this ultimately means doing more with less. Colleges will no longer be able to offer programs that have limited enrollment and/or limited employability as that would not be an efficient use of investment. Colleges also cannot afford to let academic freedom lose significance as it’s the foundation of the academy. How we continue to define efficiency — balancing a fact of life and a cherished part of higher education — becomes the challenge.

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Readers Comments

R. Jenkins 2014/10/15 at 10:52 am

I think all changes are ultimately for the positive. It worries me when we start worrying about making changes that will reduce costs for students AND improve the competitiveness of the institution b/c it might upset a few staff. Stay fresh or get moving.

P.J. Allen 2014/10/15 at 4:14 pm

This is actually really interesting, and true. We need to make sure our staff and faculty remain comfortable and happy, otherwise our product will suffer.

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