Students should be masters of postgraduate offerings

Why shouldn’t universities decide what to teach based on annual student demand, then hire temporary instructors, wonders Thomas Schneider

May 28, 2020
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The standard model of university education is to recruit students to pre-existing degree programmes, offered by a faculty that has been established over many years or decades. Even when there is the flexibility to create new programmes, these may take a long time to be approved and implemented.

Hence, universities’ capacity to create knowledge and convey skills very much depends on their local academic strengths. Meanwhile, the world becomes increasingly globalised, driving ever faster change and innovation.

What if the higher education institutions were to ditch the constraints that hamper them from keeping up? What if universities – particularly smaller ones, without huge talent pools of their own to draw from – were to decide from year to year what programmes to offer, and then hire the best possible instructors to teach them, on temporary contracts?

I envisage such an approach being particularly valuable at the level of one-year taught master’s degrees, particularly if delivered in eight successive 3.5-week blocks (with half a week’s break between each). This would allow the institution to hire instructors for those individual blocks only, rather than a full semester or academic year.

Such a block structure has already been adopted at the likes of Colorado College, Cornell College, Iowa, and Quest University, Canada. With three daily hours of seminar- or tutorial-style instruction over 18 days, it is significantly more intense than traditional 10-16 week master’s courses. And entire courses could be delivered in appropriate off-campus locations, such as a particular linguistic environment, natural habitat or industrial location.

Quality could be assured via a framework that subsumed all taught master’s streams under one accredited umbrella “master of arts and sciences” qualification – or else in the context of the institution’s overall accreditation. A dedicated programming and recruitment unit would determine the streams to be offered in the coming year, and then invite applications for admission. Alternatively, an open admission process could be conducted, from which cohorts would be selected, on merit, with similar prerequisites and preferred choices for their degree.

As for how many streams to run and how many students to recruit, institutions would need to develop a formula that best balanced their own needs and resources with those of the students. But let us imagine a small institution with an undergraduate enrolment of 1,000 that envisages having a master’s programme with 100 students annually in 10 different streams (small class sizes guarantee intense learning environments). This would amount to 80 classes, requiring 80 instructors. If the total instructor compensation per block were $10,000 (including salary, airfare, accommodation and overheads), this would amount to a total fee of $8,000 per student.

Teacher recruitment could be facilitated by identifying a lead professor for each stream, who could co-opt suitable additional instructors. Tens of thousands of academics already undertake sabbaticals or visiting appointments across the globe: these people would be obvious recruitment targets. So would emeriti professors. And many academics outside appointments might be happy for a temporary post.

For fields close to my own, I would be able to find multiple highly qualified individuals. Nor would money be their only motivation. Many colleagues who have been teaching the same courses year after year have low motivation. They would be highly motivated to break out of their routine and assume such a contract position.

A university that was not so much a trader in its own educational commodity as a broker of global talent could be accused of being parasitic on the rest of the sector. But visiting appointments or short-term research stays at other institutions are typically seen as a distinction in a scholar’s career. Teaching on the envisaged master’s programme – sharing responsibility for design of the teaching, assignments and exams for a particular stream, as well as the provisions for the capstone project or thesis – could be seen as complementing an individual’s experience and training, thereby benefiting their home institution.

Moreover, if we see higher education institutions not as competitors but as partners in the creation and distribution of knowledge, lending teachers to each other for short periods should not be seen as an infringement.

Of course, if such programmes were widely adopted, the pool of available visiting and emeriti professors would soon be exhausted, obliging programme leaders to target early career scholars instead. And some readers might object that this would further entrench a gig economy that is undermining such scholars’ sense of security and collegiality. Perhaps it would. However, that should be set against the immense benefits of such a programme for students and employers.

Such a fully flexible framework would allow universities to respond to changes in the knowledge economy and labour market as they occur (including challenges such as the current pandemic), with a steady influx of new intellectual approaches and professional viewpoints. Any institution that adopted it would provide students with the best possible preparation for a life of valuable employment.

Thomas Schneider is associate vice-president (international) at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), China. He would like to thank former Quest University president Peter Englert for inviting him to design a similar programme to the one described as a thought experiment.

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Print headline: Students should be the masters of choices in postgraduate degrees

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Reader's comments (9)

I know, why don't students just teach themselves? Better still, we might explain to this author the history of knowledge.
Clearly the writer is simply trying to stir up reaction. Do not assume that academic life is some kind of vocation.
This is morally bankrupt. As the author recognizes, it would further entrench a class of early-career academics who are employed on temporary contracts for a few years, with great financial and geographic instability. Forced to focus on intensive teaching rather than updating their knowledge with the latest developments in their field, their careers would last only as long as their doctoral research was cutting edge, after which they would need to seek non-academic careers--with few of the transferrable skills firms seek in new recruits. But this would not merely damage the tens of thousands of academic mayflies who dedicate years of their life preparing for temporary, fragile teaching gigs. It would damage the whole academic system, and the societies who rely on the knowledge they generate, by directing many promising young academics away from research. Rather than dedicating their careers to a mixture of research and teaching, as used to be the norm, this proposal would see capable scholars forced to abandon research entirely, taking a series of temporary teaching roles at the whims of a fickle market until their once cutting-edge knowledge becomes stale and out-of-date. Rather than playing a role bridging the two worlds of research and education, creating new knowledge and insight then passing it along to the next generation--along with unquantifiable tacit knowledge generated through deep, longstanding familiarity with their field as it develops--this proposal would see the bridge broken, and the cost falling on the side of research. This is indefensible.
Agree with the comments above - this is a depressing article in a THE that also highlights the impact of COVID-19 on staff without permanent contracts. Universities are not just followers of trends or fashion nor do we provide training. Education is a process of transformation that produces, inter alia, an effect on employability. If I did not have greater insight into where my subject is heading than the students and society in general, then there would be something wrong. An article such as this one is really out of place since the pandemic should have shown us that none of our endeavours matter if we do not survive to enjoy their rewards. Let us decouple education from its utilitarian aspects.
Except for the hire and fire them - the block module described here happens in a lot of Business Schools.
Great theory, except had this applied in the past, the world would still be flat, women still wouldn't be allowed to learn mathematics for fear of shrivelling their ovaries/brains, and we'd be treating Covid-19 with leeches and mercury. Working towards an understanding of the world takes a lot more than obedient submission to flat pack knowledge. The work of leading sociologist Basil Bernstein is helpful here. He talked a lot in his work about the dangers of divorcing knowledge from the knower in education in the way the author of this article seems to want. Bernstein drew on Durkheim's ideas of 'sacred' and 'profane' forms of knowledge, and this is an important distinction if you are the understand university-level learning. If you commoditise 'profane' knowledge to be delivered in corporate packages in this way, by itinerant academics as a kind of side-hustle, then you end up with a kind of sterile, static package of material that degrades over time, never refreshed by more recent research. The knowledge they communicate ends up simple being a reflection of a reflection of a reflection, increasingly devoid of meaning. If, on the other hand, you have people working deeply and thoughtfully on new research in which they feel personally and spiritually invested, aka 'sacred' knowledge, weaving that into their teaching, you end up with something altogether richer and more dynamic, that reflects the best of what is known and understood at any given time, and which encourages deep engagement on the part of students (and their teachers). If you don't understand that, then you don't really understand what the entire point of the university is supposed to be. Like the slow food movement, we are the slow learning movement - if you don't like that, go and find an intellectual hamburger and leave the rest of us to savour our whole foods slowly.
So is the UK government sponsoring articles in the THE as well as the Mail now?
Honestly, this is the kind of lazy journalism I’d exempt from the Sun, but actually they would probs have been more subtle. I HATE when people who make comparisons drawing on the US. It’s a totally different system, funded differently, organized differently, and looks at teaching and learning in very different ways. The assertions made here are obviously meant to provoke. Why is our trade publication publishing this stuff? Please can we just have some decent journalism?
Whee are suddenly these education apostles coming from preaching total nonsense. Put them on casual contracts immediately with zero chance for renewal.

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