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.

Google Scholar and the electronic library

Although structured academic databases such as Inspec and ISI Web of Knowledge still play an important role in research literature study, over the past few years, Google Scholar has certainly become my first choice for finding academic papers on topics in my field of research. It’s Googlishly quick, cuts across many repositories and databases, and its advanced search features make it easy to filter on date range, specific journals or magazines, and specific authors.

If you do your Google Scholar search from a computer on the Stellenbosch University network, you’ll notice that many of the search results carry a sidebar link entitled “Full-Text @ Stellenbosch”. Clicking on this link takes you directly to the university’s E-journal subscription service, from where you can download the PDF. Gone are the days of poking through the library bookshelves for the right journal, and lugging a heap of bound journals to the photocopier before you can go and read the papers.

Many of us also spend much of our research time on our own computers, away from the university network. Did you know that you can also easily access your institution’s E-journal subscription from your own study? Setting it up is simple enough:

  1. Visit Google Scholar, and make sure you are logged in to your Google Account.
  2. Click on the Scholar Preferences link on the top right.
  3. At the “Library Links” section, enter “Stellenbosch” (our your institution’s name, if you study or work elsewhere) and hit the “Find” button.
  4. Tick the box.

You should now see the “Full-Text @ Stellenbosch” link whenever you browse Google Scholar results. When you’re not on the university website, you will have to enter your university login name and password to access the PDFs.

What’s a PhD?

A colleague points out this quite excellent and accurate illustrated guide to a PhD. This is definitely worth contemplating if you consider doing (or have just started) your doctorate research. And if you have a doctorate, the last picture should help you keep things in perspective :)

Incentive system: bad for scholarship?

University World News carried the following interesting piece today:

Research has become, over the last decade or so, a commodity in South Africa. Of course, this has always partially been the case with applied research. Studies have always been commissioned or funded by industries and government departments, with the aim of improving upon the products or services provided, innovating new ways of doing things and increasing efficiency and effectiveness.

The article goes on to discuss the ways in which the publication subsidy system in South Africa could encourage academics to “salami-slice” research, and publish in less prestigious journals. Read the full report here.

The opinion will surely not be a surprise to any South African academic. I’m rather intrigued by Rhodes University‘s system, which seems to be more balanced (although it seems to replace an objective subsidy system with a subjective one, which may introduce problems of its own).


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