US: Imagining a world without lecturers

For the past nine months, an ad hoc task force has been meeting to rethink the structure of the humanities division at the University of California, Los Angeles. All people interested in the future of higher education should be concerned with this report that makes several questionable recommendations.

While the authors claim that their main emphasis is not to slash the budgets of these programmes, it is clear their central focus is to reduce labour costs at the university.

"Language instruction is labour-intensive and tends at UCLA to employ non-ladder instructors unprotected by tenure," the report says.

"Because of this, we expect there to be substantial pressure to ease the language requirement, which would not only blatantly contradict all three of the `chief campus priorities of excellence, diversity, and community engagement' (which our charge letter reasonably reminds us to `bear in mind'), but would also in our opinion be disastrous on multiple levels."

Reading this opening salvo, one would think the report would endorse protecting language instruction and non-tenure-track lecturers. But we soon learn that this ad hoc faculty committee (with no lecturer representation) attempts to imagine a world without lecturers.

As the report constantly points out, lecturers are the least expensive teachers and they teach many - if not most - of the required classes in the humanities. But they are also the most vulnerable during a budget crisis and so the campus must find a way to staff undergraduate courses without them.

The first recommendation is to strengthen the foreign language programmes by moving up to half the classes to summer and online. As the report states: "Active use of the summer sessions would produce two immediate and direct benefits: pressure would be lessened upon those language programmes that are currently overburdened between September and June; and revenue could be generated during the summer to fund both lecturers and graduate students.

"We estimate that as much as 40-50% of language teaching could be moved to the summer, and even more if we consider the undeveloped potential for an affiliated online language programme, based upon the profitable, technically established model in place for the last five years at UCLA's TFT. Enrolments and income will both grow. Non-UCLA students could be specifically targeted, not only from elsewhere within California but also abroad."

What the report does not mention is that by moving half the courses to summer, UCLA would be able to lay off all its language instructors and then hire these academics back without benefits and at much lower salaries.

Since summer session is only partially covered by the lecturers' contract, the summer teachers could be paid at a low rate and would lose all their job protections.

Of course, the other major part of this initiative is the question of the effectiveness of online language instruction. In fact, much of the report is spent defending the idea that the turn to online learning will not undermine the reputation of the institution; rather, the task force claims UCLA will be able to position itself as a leader of high-quality digital learning:

"UCLA's great reputation would assure the popularity of our online courses, especially given the complete lack of competition today in the `high-end' realm of learner-centred, distance pedagogy," the report says.

As someone who has written an entire book on the subject of how online education undermines the value of research universities, I would argue that the lack of competition stems from the realisation that most online programmes end up to be very expensive and result in a low level of student retention.

That is not to say that we should not use new media in our classes; rather, we cannot employ these new technologies to completely replace in-class instruction.

In one of the most dubious parts of the report, the writers claim the turn to online writing instruction will actually save money and jobs: "Online learning offers the potential to achieve several concrete goals: improvement in students' time-to-degree; a lessening of pressure in overcrowded classrooms; the generation of funds to save lecturers' positions; and the emergence of UCLA as the leader in top-quality, ie, not cut-price, distance education."

First of all, if you move courses to summer and online, you will not need any lecturers, except for the ones you hire on the cheap during the summer.

Second, the reason why online programmes cost so much is that they require a tremendous amount of equipment, staff, electricity and administration. Moreover, most studies of online education show these programmes hurt the ability of students to graduate on time because so many students drop out or do not complete their courses.

Perhaps the most noxious part of this plan is the idea of forcing students to pay extra to fulfil their language courses in the summer:

"Because many students might prefer to avoid the added expense of summer study, a respectful hierarchy would need to be established among participants. If languages were indeed offered year-round, it would be only fair to give majors and pre-majors in the relevant departments first choice during the school year.

"Language instruction that is traditionally oversubscribed, such as Chinese and Spanish, could require transfer or 'external' students from other departments to satisfy their language requirements during the summer."

I believe this passage is positing that students who are not majoring in a specific language would have to take the course during the summer or some other programme that requires payment. Instead of students being able to study their home language at UCLA, they would now have to pay extra for the privilege of language instruction.

As language instruction gets squeezed, the plan is to set up a new humanities institute and develop a new major in digital humanities. While the programmes might seem like good ways of rethinking the humanities, these new initiatives would surely cost a large amount of money.

One has to question why UCLA is pursuing a policy of eliminating all lecturers because of budgetary concerns as it embarks on projects that require new administrators, academics and staff.

Furthermore, the report reveals that the humanities have been kept afloat by their reliance on courses taught by lecturers. But now they are going to eliminate their own cash cow:

"Humanities generating over $59 million in student fee revenue while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences which come up several million dollars short in this category).

"Writing programmes alone generate $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue at a cost of only $2.4 million. These profits will increase as student fees increase; they would be even greater if we figured in a share of the over-enrolment subsidies due from the state.

"In pursuing our vital, non-profit mission of advancing knowledge and teaching, the humanities is not only a bargain but also a profit-generating entity. Massive cuts in the humanities instructional budget are not only destructive to the core mission of the university, they are also financially unjustifiable."

According to this analysis, the writing programmes generate a large profit for the humanities, and any cut would be destructive to the core mission and financially unjustifiable. But the report fails to mention that all faculty in the writing programmes have been given one-year layoff notices.

While we expect some of these layoffs will be rescinded, the current plan is to replace many of the lecturers with graduate students and faculty from other programmes.

In one of the only other mentions of writing instruction in the report, the authors actually suggest placing academics from other departments who continue to have low workloads into writing classes:

"Faculty whose courses are insufficiently enrolled could be assigned to appropriate courses in the humanities institute, the language centre, or the writing programmes (as is already the case in at least one department).

"Department chairs will be responsible for making such assignments, and for assuring that faculty teaching in the writing programme are sufficiently trained through the programme's pedagogy course."

In this structure, teaching in the writing programmes would be the ultimate threat to tenured professors. Here we see how the most popular and profitable programme at UCLA is represented as the worst form of punishment for under-utilised faculty.

Not only does the task force suggest moving language courses to the summer and online but it lists more than 100 high-enrolment courses from all over the curriculum that could be shifted to the summer.

If the university actually followed the advice of this report, we would see most of the required undergraduate courses placed online, and students would have to pay extra for the privilege of taking these classes of questionable quality.

One of the justifications for this move is that the high-enrolment classes already suffer from a low level of quality: "Most of our GE/lower-division students have some experience of classes that are so big, they'd be better off watching a video performance, a close-up broadcast that is paused and (re)considered at their own pace.

"The bigger classes often offer no contact with the professor, in any case. Hence the number of students in the back row(s) 'taking notes' on their laptops, many of whom are actually polishing their Facebook profiles.

"(The same students, no doubt, also wish they were at home, watching a popular BruinCast of the same information. This is an online programme, in fact, that is now so popular it has caused lecture attendance to decrease!)."

In other words, large lecture classes already provide such a poor level of instruction and interaction that we might as well move the whole thing online. It is amazing that these thoughtful advocates of the humanities are actually recommending the destruction of higher education and effective undergraduate instruction.

* Bob Samuels is President of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers. This is an edited version of an article he wrote for his blog.