What do university professors do? Ask most parents, and they'll probably say something like, "They teach our kids to think clearly and master a body of knowledge so that they're prepared for a decent career." Ask a professor, and you'll get a different answer. Professors are expected to do a roughly equal measure of teaching and research, plus a bunch of administrative and "service" stuff on the side. Most parents might be surprised to learn that, on average, teaching is expected to take up only two-fifths of a professor's time.
In reality, some professors are doing a lot less than that. New research from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, a provincial government agency, finds that the typical teaching load of a university professor has dwindled to less than three courses a year – 2.8, to be exact, just 1.4 courses per semester. A quarter of a century ago, a teaching load of five courses a year (three one semester, two the next) was common.
"Productivity" is not a welcome word in academic circles, especially among faculty unions. And whether by accident or design, workload data for university professors is next to impossible to get. But the big picture is abundantly clear and the general trend of a sharp decline in teaching loads holds true across the country. "There is too much of a flight from teaching and other student-oriented activities," says Ken Coates, a public-policy professor at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of the new book What to Consider If You're Considering University.
So how are the professors spending their time? Research. The system is skewed toward research, because research is rewarded by government grants, promotions and prestige. Clearly, this makes more sense for some disciplines (nanotechnology) than others (philosophy and English come to mind). But these days, everyone is supposed to be a teacher-scholar, even though there is little evidence that research improves teaching, or that all this scholarly endeavour is worthwhile. Much of it languishes in obscure, unread journals, doomed to be uncited for all time.
Yet the HEQCO report found that just under a fifth of professors don't do any active research, either. They teach a bit more than the others, but not a lot more. The authors of the report calculate that if those faculty were reassigned to full-time teaching, we would add the equivalent of 1,500 extra professors to the system. This will never happen in real life, but it's an illustration of what there is to gain from better management. In a world of shrinking budgets, the authors argue, using faculty resources more effectively "may be one of the most promising opportunities for universities to increase their productivity."
To fend off the inevitable torrents of angry e-mail, I shall now acknowledge that most university professors (the ones I know, at least) work very hard. But the ones who don't – or whose work is of marginal value – aren't nearly as accountable for the quality and quantity of their work as most other people. Neither are their institutions. The authors of the HEQCO report deserve medals for their heroic efforts to assemble the kind of information that should routinely be made public. After all, we pump a lot of money into postsecondary education, and we pay the professoriate fairly well. In Ontario, 12,000 academic staff made more than $100,000 in 2012. The average salary for a full professor was $158,348, according to Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates.
The retreat from teaching means that today's undergraduates are less and less likely to meet these people, whose teaching duties have been increasingly assumed by graduate students and visiting lecturers. Is this really what we want? I don't think so.