Hard times: it pays to be practical in an age of academic austerity

Administrators favour funding applied subjects over 'pure' and 'soft' disciplines. David Matthews writes

September 29, 2011

"Hard-applied" subjects such as mechanical engineering are most likely to be given additional resources and spared from cuts in times of austerity, according to a US study into the behaviour of academic administrators.

A paper published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, titled "Administrators' decisions about resource allocation", concludes that the differences in attitude towards subjects is big enough to "routinely influence funding".

However, the hard-applied bias is not shared by decision-makers who had a background in such subjects themselves, the authors say.

The study is based on the results of a survey of 1,690 chief academic officers, deans, department chairs and directors at doctoral-granting institutions across the US. Participants were asked to score hypothetical university departments according to how worthy they were of receiving extra money or avoiding cuts.

The study looked at four subjects representing different categories: physics ("hard pure"); mechanical engineering ("hard applied"); English ("soft pure"); and elementary education ("soft applied"). Respondents significantly favoured mechanical engineering, followed by physics, elementary education and English.

The study concludes that this may be because hard-applied subjects are "more tangible" and have a more "practical nature".

"Applied disciplines are often most visible to the public and appreciated for their direct contribution to the educated workforce," it says.

"As academic administrators face increasing pressure to work with business and industry, they may more likely turn to areas seen as most influential by the public."

It adds: "Traditionally, it would be expected that the pure disciplines would be favoured by academics and some of the public as they best align with the benefits of a liberal education; however, there was no evidence for this in the present study."

In the UK, the Comprehensive Spending Review last October resulted in the abolition of the teaching grant for arts and humanities courses, while a small subsidy was retained for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has argued that the government adopted a "neutral policy" to subjects, pointing out that all were cut by the same amount in cash terms, but that STEM subjects received more in the first place.

The survey, carried out by staff at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, also broke down the results by the academic background of the administrators, and found that those with hard-pure and soft-applied backgrounds favoured mechanical engineering. Yet respondents with hard-applied backgrounds put their own disciplinary group second to physics, a hard-pure subject.

Those with soft-pure backgrounds prioritised elementary education. "Predicting that those knowing the most about a discipline would favour it is not supported by the data," the study concludes.

"One might argue that when administrators do favour a discipline, it will not be their own as they know more about tenuous assumptions and the challenges to important theories in their own areas of expertise.

"This perception fits the popular notice that the grass is greener in other disciplines."

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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