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.