How Universities Work

In one of my recent posts, I made passing mention of “increasing research productivity” at universities. This is a pretty vague concept, and touches upon a often misunderstood topic: How Universities Work. This post is likely to paint only a partial picture, but I’ve seen that it can sometimes be downright confusing to outsiders, so it bears writing up.

I’ll give a simple model of how university outputs (and funding) work in South Africa. It’s usually not too dissimilar in other countries. Take it with a pinch of salt: the model may be less accurate depending on whether you’re looking at an institutional, departmental, or individual academic’s perspective.

The currency of universities can be summarised by two quantities: full-time equivalent students (FEs), and publication units (PUs). These are a university’s “bottom line”. We need resources (including money) to produce these, and their production usually unlock further resources – with which further FEs and PUs can be produced.

Another pinch of salt: this is a very crude yardstick that is useful to measure university productivity in a quantitative way. The true measure of a university’s productivity, is the impact it has on its society: the quality of the graduates entering productive careers; the knowledge and expertise it imports into its home country; the knowledge and expertise it contributes to the world, and to society and industry as stakeholders.

The University as Educator: Full-Time Equivalent Students

One primary role of the university is to lead matriculants into becoming graduates. The quality of a country’s universities has a direct impact on the quality of its professional workforce, and the depth of its literature and artistic and journalistic discourse. In South Africa, government subsidy is received for each “FE” (full-time equivalent student) enrolled. “Full-time equivalent” means that a part-time student may count only 0.5 FE, or some other fraction depending on course credits. This places pressure on universities to push student enrollment. However, the university also earns subsidy for each FE “delivered”, which is the rather industrious term for leading a student to graduation. This places pressure on universities to minimise drop-out rates and term of study.

It’s clear to see that this system is open to abuse. Enrollment rates can easily be inflated by dropping entrance requirements. Graduation rates can be improved by lowering course standards. However, these short-term strategies may have the opposite effect in the longer term, as a university’s reputation suffers. Also, the success and reputation of a university as educator has a direct effect on the second metric: postgraduate research.

The University as Research Institution: Publication Units

The role of the research university is “a vital issue for development” for countries such as South Africa [1]. Currently, South Africa is deep inside the underdeveloped region of the knowledge divide, with only about 0.93% of GDP spent on R&D [2], and a very low higher education enrollment of approximately 16% [3]. As in many other countries, the South African government incentivises research productivity by providing financial “rewards” for outputs. Here, another crude but useful yardstick comes into play: the publication unit (PU). When a researcher publishes her work in an accredited, peer-reviewed journal, one PU is earned. Publication in conference proceedings receive 0.3 PUs. PUs are divided between collaborating authors, and proof of independent peer review must be demonstrated.

Again, the system can be abused. It’s possible to push up PUs by publishing many lower-quality papers in less reputable journals or conferences, where the standards of peer review or editorial oversight may not be as high. The reputational damage of playing the “numbers game” is less direct.

In other parts of university quality review (e.g. the rating and promotion of individual academics) not only publication numbers are considered, but also the focus and the impact of the research. Impact is typically measured by counting citations to publications. This review of individual researchers’ quality of publications serves to disincentivise the “numbers game” somewhat.

Dealing with Universities

An important point to note is that universities aren’t particularly interested in making money for money’s own sake – but healthy income is critical to growing FEs and PUs, and (more importantly) serving the mission of the university to have an impact on its society and the world.

This can sometimes be confusing to funders and collaborators. We donated 50 microscopes, worth half a million each, for research – why isn’t the university more thankful? Chances are that we are; budget for equipment is always tight. But does that donation translate into a measurable increase in enrollment or publication? We give 30 postgraduate bursaries each year, worth R100k each – this is a strong negotation chip. Well, the value of a bursary to a university is indirect; it rather presents an advantage to students, which may or may not improve enrollment rates (would a student have been able to fund her own studies? what other bursaries were available?). The value of R1 investment in terms of FEs and PUs is rarely clear-cut.

In the end, however, these metrics are just measurable proxies for a university’s true resources: quickened minds, knowledge and ideas. A good university should never mistake the metric for the goal.


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