Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ask and ye shall...

Every semester, I get at least one student who constantly asks for help, but won't follow it. For one reason excuse or another - I already tried that, I can't do that because... - the same student who reels me in throws what I offer right back in the lake.

Ry Rivard's article "Consultants' best case scenarios rarely reality" from Inside Higher Ed strikes up a conversation that isn't generally part of the regular cycle of griping in post-secondary, but it's definitely one with some deep implications about the state of affairs.

The article refers to a new study from the Education Advisory Board analyzing the cost-reduction efforts suggested by outside consultants. The first takeaway is that although the colleges involved did see savings, the study reports, those savings were far less than what the consultants projected if their recommendations were adopted. The second is that the savings came from the same two places: procurement and organizational redesign. In other words, buy less stuff and Six Sigma the workforce.

What gets me is the statement from Barry Swanson quoted in the article:

“The key to making a consultant-assisted project work doesn’t lie with the consultant; it lies with the university.” (emphasis mine)

This is an important reminder of all that's really going on here, and it really sums up those two takeaways nicely.

Mostly, that colleges are still struggling with toeing that line between a place of invaluable educational enlightenment for the betterment of society and a business with budget sheets, profit margins, and generally driven by numbers. The very fact that colleges call on consultants to help with the latter implies a bias towards the first. We've been able to get away with ignoring the business side for some time for several reasons (most of which have since become irrelevant.) It takes a lot of expensive stuff to teach students, so we get to buy it. Faculty and staff loads vary with changes in enrollment, so we get to hire a lot of people. This is an investment in a student's education, and there can be no price tag.

This could mean that colleges are employee-heavy - too many administrators or middle managers, too many staff, too many faculty with light teaching loads, employees who have made it their job to create work for themselves. And that colleges hoard employees. Instructors have a tendency to be martyrs for their students; they'll suffer for years and years in a frustrating institution for the sake of their student's education. Not many will leave their post under anything less than dire circumstances.

This could also be indicative of how predatory the selling-stuff-to-colleges business has become. Office supplies, educational technology, software, textbooks, and supplemental materials are the kinds of necessary expenses that hurt when you click "Submit payment." Professional development - webinars, conferences, competitions, training - is much the same but is easier to push to the back burner. And, of course, consultants.

This could be yet another example of how "C"-y higher education can be. Change may only happen at the request of an external somebody. Higher education can't find anything wrong; if we did, we'd be admitting and acknowledging our fault. So, we need someone else to point it out, and then we can make those changes to appease that outside someone.

Or this could mean that colleges need to accept the shift towards a more business-like business model, perhaps even creating a new space in which both interests are fed. Those needed improvements will not only benefit the bottom line, but also lend to what institutions need to keep up with societal changes.

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