Are Universities Failing Our Students

I wrote a recent blog quite critical of academic institutions as it relates to Marketing.  As I pointed out  business schools are different than other faculties.  Professors should be obligated to work in business for a number of years before becoming academics in a business school… especially teaching marketing . All the academic research and learning won’t be of much use if you have no experience working in the “real world”.  I feel it is extremely important that the professors have a basic understanding of the “real world.” Although theory is important, the ability to apply the theory to real-life situations is equally important.

We have so called business courses that teach a multitude of theories , many useless,  but very very few  actually provide useful information that could be used by business students once they graduate. Why are students forced to take a whole bunch of courses especially in the first few years that are for the most part useless. While courses which would help them immensely are rarely taught and in most cases are optional programs. The two courses that every business student should be forced to take is 1. Business writing/communications and 2. Presentation skills.  Frankly I don’t care how well you do in your undergraduate business/marketing program if you can’t put your thoughts down on paper and/or can’t present them to clients or management your chances in making in business/marketing are pretty slim.

On the topic of universities, a recent article by Peggy Wente at the Globe and Mail on September 19th was quite controversial and provides some perspective and incites on some of the challenges at academic institutions, particularly undergraduate programs. Her major criticisms include: most students take courses from “itinerant graduate students”, large classes especially in first and second years are not supportive of learning, and use of  multiple-choice tests instead of essay questions is the trend in universities. ( Note I understand why professors with very large classes use multiple choice but professors with small classes should absolutely refrain from using them to evaluate students)

Wente points out that “the  dropout rate at universities in Canada is at an all-time high (56 per cent finish their degrees within six years)”. Universities according to Wente “are rewarded for getting bums in seats, not for educating and graduating them. Educating undergraduates is just about the last thing most professors want to do. They’d rather not have the students around, because they’d rather do research.”

She points out that universities are unaccountable for results, if, by results, we mean successfully educating students. In the reward system of universities, it’s research, not teaching, that matters. Professors are rewarded not for turning out high-quality graduates, but for turning out books and papers – even if they are unread. ( As I mentioned in my previous blog, much of the research in the field of marketing is irrelevant according to some experts).  This perverse system stubbornly persists, despite the fact that everyone knows it’s absurd. Some research, especially in the sciences and medicine, matters a great deal to the advancement of society. But a vast amount of it does not.”

Richard K. Vedder professor of economics at Ohio University and an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and  a leading U.S. critic, has argued that “the higher education system has pawned off the responsibility of educating students  in favour of pursuing a whole lot of self-interested research. Their job is now done by an itinerant class of ill-paid academic serfs, who cobble together a living teaching sessional courses as they strive to churn out yet another scholarly article that might help them land a steady job. But the full professors whom they subsidize have a very pleasant life. ”

Wente points out “that professors typically devote only 40 per cent of their time to teaching. And the effectiveness, efficiency and productivity of that teaching are almost an afterthought. Funding and incentives need to change so that departments are rewarded for graduating students efficiently and fast and not producing journal articles that nobody reads” (except other academics) .

“Publish or Perish” is often heard in the halls of academia. Deans want to know your publishing records although in recent years student evaluations of professors are being used to evaluate professors. But as one professor mentioned to me the professors who might have poor  evaluations may be the best teachers as they may be tougher on the students don’t hand out A’s and are very demanding (a recipe for poor student evaluations )

Richard Vedder argues that we should spend less time worrying about university access for all, and more time on the “scandal” of the billions we waste on unsuccessful efforts to educate students who fail to graduate. “The focus of higher education reform should be on increasing the quality of our college graduates,” he writes. And that will never happen until students count for more than articles in unread quarterlies.

So what are we to deduce from all this:

Universities pay scant attention to the needs of the undergraduate students who typically are their bread and butter. This is especially true in business schools where MBA and other Graduate programs tend to get a much higher priority .

Students  need knowledge and skills more than ever, but alternative forms of providing those skills, such as community colleges and on-the-job training are often superior and lower cost options. At least students learn stuff that is practical. For example, a trend in marketing is for students taking courses at a  community college after they graduate university to pick up hard skills that employers require. Most of these skills are not taught in universities.

Finally, we spend a heck of a lot of money on universities, but you really have to wonder what we are getting for our return on investment.

“Are universities failing students?”

“Should we be rethinking how universities are run”?

“Are business schools doing a good job teaching marketing”?

What do you think?