Boost productivity by asking professors to teach more: report

Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario study gets mixed reviews

<p>Sept. 28/2012 &#8211; Western University, London, Ontario. Students in this 3rd yr Business class discuss ways to manage global teams in the work environment.</p>

Western students in lecture (Jessica Darmanin)

A new report says Ontario’s universities could get 10 per cent more teaching productivity without hiring a single new professor if “research non-active” faculty were in classrooms twice a much as their “research active” colleagues. If accurate, that means there is the potential to add the equivalent of about 1,500 professors without spending more money or pulling academic stars away from their research.

The report is from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, an arms-length agency funded by the provincial government. Using public data, they found that the average teaching load per faculty member was just 2.8 courses in the 2012 academic year (September to April) and many professors weren’t publishing at all.

Amir Eftekarpour, a Western University student and president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, says he’s excited by the possibility of some professors being asked to teach more as it could help reduce class sizes. OUSA, a student advocacy group representing eight student unions, also has a new report out today based on a survey of nearly 9,000 members that advocates for, among other things, hiring more professors who would spend, “at least a majority of [their] time teaching.”

As it stands, the (often unwritten) rule is that professors spend 40 per cent of their time teaching, 40 per cent researching and 20 per cent in “service,” which includes things like sitting on academic committees. In reality, some professors are much more prolific researchers while others take on more classes.

The HEQCO report estimates 19 per cent of the faculty they looked at were non-active researchers—defined as those who hadn’t published in major journals or received any federal “tri-council” funding in more than three years. (The three councils are SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR.)

But while one might expect those non-active researchers to teach far more than their research-focused colleagues, the study found they teach only modestly more: 0.5 courses more in chemistry and 0.9 more in economics, for example. The potential 10 per cent productivity gain is based on those non-active researchers taking on roughly six courses per academic year while their research-focused colleagues remain at roughly three.

Such conclusions aren’t fair, according to Kate Lawson, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, who says the study has “severe methodological problems.” She says Ontario professors are teaching more than ever and that there are not armies of non-active researchers as HEQCO suggests.

“Professors teach students [not] courses,” she says, adding that it’s wrong to draw conclusions about teaching productivity from courseloads. She points out that the current student-faculty ratio is 28 to one which is up from 18 to one in 1990. The bigger that ratio, the more time professors must spend doing things like helping students in office hours, which isn’t captured in courseload data. She also says that only 30.2 per cent more faculty were hired between 2000 and 2011 while enrolment increased 64.2 per cent. “That is a staggering productivity gain over time.”

On top of that, HEQCO’s definition of non-active researchers is wrong, she says. For example, a professor who has spent three or four years writing a book (a well accepted use of research time) would be labelled non-active in the report.

The HEQCO authors admit there are flaws in the study’s design but say it’s the best they could do with the data available.

OUSA’s new survey asked students about how they see teaching versus research on their campuses: 38 per cent thought there was more emphasis on research, 30 per cent thought teaching and research were balanced, 13 per cent thought teaching was more emphasized and 20 per cent said they didn’t know. It varied widely by school with students at the University of Waterloo, McMaster University, Brock University, Queen’s University and Western University reporting a much greater emphasis on research while students at Trent University and Wilfrid Laurier University reported more balance.