HEQCO distorts faculty teaching loads: News media play along

In March, 2014, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), published a study purporting to show that Ontario professors only teach an average of 2.8 courses per year.

The study went on to propose that professors who are not active in research should have their teaching loads doubled.

News media such as the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the CBC, faithfully reported the study results and recommendations, without mentioning that HEQCO is an “agency of the Government of Ontario,” according to its web site.

So, what’s wrong with all of this? Well, aside from leaving out crucial information such as the study’s sponsor, the news media readily accepted the study’s blatant propaganda, and ignored its disastrous flaws.

The study authors obtained their data from university web sites. My university’s web site does not contain even a fragment of my C.V., so perusing it would tell you little about what research, teaching, and publishing I have done.

The authors acknowledged these limitations in their study, but claimed the posted data “are the best we can obtain.”

In other words, our methods are inadequate, but this will not prevent us from advancing our agenda.

Additionally, the HEQCO report states that the study authors included in their average numbers faculty members on leave or sabbatical, provided they “taught at least one course during the fall or winter term of the 2012 academic year…”

As you well know, this means that their average number of courses taught, is deflated by faculty on one-semester sabbaticals. Since faculty at my university – which was included in the study –are eligible to take six-month sabbaticals after every three years, this means that all faculty are eligible every three years, or 1/3 of all faculty in any given year. Failing to account for this in their calculations means that HEQCO grossly underestimates courses taught. We can’t be expected to teach classes when on leave, and including those on sabbatical in the average is misleading.

Let’s use my own case as an example: this year I taught two courses in the fall, and this semester I am on sabbatical leave. So, my “course load” for the academic year would have been calculated as two, when in a normal academic year, such as next year, it will be teaching five courses. If I were one of the philosophers, chemists, or economists included in this study, HEQCO’s assessment of my teaching load would be 40 per cent of the reality. I also taught one independent undergraduate study course in the fall, and I supervised two graduate student theses. None of this would be included in the HEQCO study.

Again, the study may have made this error for as much as one third of its sample, which would grossly distort its averages.

The report also states: “We include departmental chairs and other faculty members with administrative duties when constructing a department’s average course load and acknowledge that the teaching load of these faculty members is often reduced to account for their increased administrative duties.”

So, while the study acknowledges that administrative duties are offset by courses, it does nothing to take this into account. This also seriously deflates the estimated teaching load, as each department head, graduate chair, and undergraduate chair in almost every department all receive reduced teaching loads owing to administrative responsibilities. It should be noted that these duties normally far outweigh the teaching loads they replace in terms of time commitment.

Unfortunately, the study authors were not satisfied with grossly underestimating teaching loads: they also severely underestimated faculty research and publishing.

The HEQCO study’s authors did this by inexplicably including only peer- reviewed journal articles, as “research.” While journal articles are sometimes scored highly in the physical sciences, in the social sciences books are usually more significant accomplishments.

The study excluded all books, book chapters, conference papers, productions such as films, plays, etc., which, for some faculty constitutes the bulk of their research output.

That’s absolutely nonsensical. A professor could have published a book every year – an astonishing level of productivity – and would still be categorized as a completely non-active researcher, according to HEQCO’s methodology. As they note:

“For economics and philosophy, we include only articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We do not include other research activity such as books, book chapters, conference presentations, case studies, reviews and contributions to workshops.”

To further reduce the chances of finding faculty research, the authors relied upon just ONE computer data base, ProQuest, to count faculty publications, and excluded any publications not found there. What is worse, the authors inexplicably selected just seven journals from which to count faculty publications in philosophy, amongst the dozens that exist. Publications in any and all other academic journals were excluded.

Hence, the HEQCO study severely underestimates the average number of courses taught by faculty, and then severely underestimates the research activity of their samples, by excluding many usual and important scholarly contributions.

Based on these faulty data, the study concluded that faculty in Ontario universities teach an average of 2.8 courses annually. The study concludes:

“…that if research non-active faculty members were to teach twice the teaching load of their research-active colleagues…the overall teaching capacity of the full-time professoriate in Ontario would be increased by about 10%, a teaching impact equivalent to adding about 1,500 additional faculty members across the province.”

In effect, professors publishing books or making films or writing plays or engaged in myriad other important activities ignored by HEQCO should be punished by having their teaching loads doubled.

It’s difficult to imagine how this HEQCO study could have been more biased against professors, and more supportive, by design, of policies that seek to get squeeze more work out of professors to compensate for stagnant faculty hiring and persistent government under-funding of universities.

The really sad fact, however, is that all of this could have been gleaned by perusal of the 50 page HEQCO study, which was online and even linked to the Toronto Star article. Instead of reading the study and assessing its faults, or contacting someone who had read the study, it appears as if the Star and the Globe largely passed along its incorrect and harmful conclusions.

To add insult to injury, the Star did not inform its readers that HEQCO is an arm of the Ontario Government, and instead reported the study as though it represented bona fide, independent scientific research. I have filed a complaint about this with the Star’s Public Editor.

Otherwise, did you know that 100 percent of the economics faculty at Queen’s, and more than 90 percent of those at Western and the U of T, earn more than $100,000 annually? That’s what this report states. Why? Well, in part because the authors excluded part-time faculty from their study, omitting perhaps 50 percent or more faculty who are limited term. What an excellent study- a clinic in how to exclude data for narrow political ends.

Dr. James Winter is a professor at the University of Windsor. winter@uwindsor.ca