Productivity as an Urgent Concern of Higher Education
For a long time, higher education has behaved as if compelling opportunities for improving student learning should be pursued without much attention to productivity issues. Our community has focused on desirable results, on the outputs of the productivity formula, without disciplined attention to the inputs part of the equation. One result has been that expenditures per student at public universities in the United States grew between 1979 and 1989 at an average annual rate of 1.82% above inflation. The annual growth rate for private universities was a much higher 3.36%.
It is hard to believe that such patterns of cost increase can be sustained much longer or that we can continue simply to increase the price of higher education as the principal means for improving it and especially for meeting apparently insatiable demands for information technology. We must seriously engage with issues of productivity. Otherwise, there will be little to determine the pace of technology innovation except the squeaky wheel of student or faculty demand or, less commonly, an institutional vision for technology-enhanced education. In neither case is there economically cogent guidance for the right level of investment in information technology. We are left to invest as much as we can, with nothing but socially validated political and educational ideas about what the phrase "as much as we can" actually means. Because we so rarely close the economic loop between the productivity value we create for users and our investment in technology, the language for decision making almost never reaches beyond that of improving convenience and enhancing quality. I believe it is vitally important for managers of information technology to understand the fundamental economic disconnect in the language of convenience and service we primarily use and to add the language of productivity to our deliberations about investing in information technology.
In connecting productivity gains with technology investment, we may find-as analysis of the Scully Project suggests-that some improvements can be justified while others cannot. Productivity measures should not be the sole guide to investment in information technology. But by insisting on securing productivity gains where we can, we will at least identify appropriate if sometimes only partial sources for funding new investments and thereby lower the rate at which overall costs rise in higher education above those in the rest of the economy.
The stakes for higher education in acting on the productivity problems con-
fronting it are immense. Today, it is regularly asserted that administrative activities are wasteful and should be made more productive. But turning to core academic activities, especially teaching, we feel that no productivity gains can be made without compromising quality. Teaching is rather like playing in a string quartet. A string quartet required four musicians in Mozart's day, and it still does. To talk about making the performance of a string quartet more productive is to talk patent nonsense. To talk about making classroom teaching more productive seems to many almost as objectionable. The observable result is that higher education has had to live off the productivity gains of other sectors of the economy. The extreme pressure on all of higher education's income sources suggests that we are coming to the end of the time when people are willing uncritically to transfer wealth to higher education. Socially validated beliefs about the effectiveness of higher education are in serious jeopardy. If our community continues to stare blindly at these facts, if we refuse to engage seriously with productivity issues on an institutional and community-wide basis, we will bring disaster upon the enterprise of teaching and learning to which we have devoted our professional lives.
If this seems alarmist, consider the work of 10 governors in the western United States intent on creating a high-tech, virtual university, the Western Governors' University. Faced with growing populations and burgeoning demand for higher education, but strong taxpayer resistance to meeting that demand through the traditional cost structures of higher education, state officials are determined to create a much more productive regional system of higher education. That productivity is the key issue is evident in the statement of Alvin Meiklejohn, the chairman of the State Senate Education Committee in Colorado. "Many students in Colorado," he said, "are now taking six years to get an A.B. degree. If we could reduce that by just one year ... it would reduce the cost to the student by one-sixth and also free up some seats in the classrooms for the tidal wave we see coming our way."
Senator Meiklejohn is looking for a 17% increase in productivity. I think library and information technology managers know where some of that gain may be found. If, however, we scoff at the idea of increasing student productivity through the use of information technologies, if we insist that the job of measuring and redirecting the productivity gains we create with information technology is impossible, if we trap ourselves in the language of convenience and fail to engage with issues of productivity, then the consequences-at least in the West-are clear. Major new investment in higher education will be directed not to established institutions but to new organizations that can meet the productivity standards insisted on by Senator Meiklejohn and the taxpayers he represents.
A second and larger groundswell in American life is also instructive on the question of productivity. Health care reform and managed care are both driven by the idea that the high cost and poor delivery of health care must change, that
costs must be controlled-that health care services must become much more productive. Arguments about the incompatibility of higher productivity and the maintenance of quality care resonate strongly with parallel arguments about the impossibility of making higher education more productive without compromising quality. What makes the health care debate so instructive is that we already know which side will prevail. Everywhere we turn, medical institutions and the practitioners who lead them are scrambling to find ways to survive within a managed care environment. Survival means the preservation of quality care, to be sure, but the ineluctable reality is that quality will now be defined within terms set by managed care. We are beginning to find ways to talk about increased productivity and quality as complementary rather than as antithetical ideas.
Given the current state of public opinion about higher education, it is impossible for me to believe we will not soon follow health care. We will almost certainly find ourselves embroiled in divisive, rancorous debates about higher education reform. I hope we will avail ourselves in these debates of a language about information technology that continues to embrace ideas of convenience but reaches strongly beyond them. We will need to talk meaningfully about productivity and link our ability to create productivity gains with investment in information technology. And I hope we will follow the medical community in working to make productivity and quality regularly cognate rather than always antagonistic ideas.
For the past 150 years or so, libraries have been the guardians in the Western world of socially equitable access to information. Libraries have become public institutions instead of institutions serving powerful elites, as they once were. This is a noble heritage and a worthy ongoing mission for our profession. And information technology will play a key role in advancing it. As Richard Lanham argues in a landmark essay, "if our business is general literacy, as some of us think, then electronic instructional systems offer the only hope for the radically leveraged mass instruction the problems of general literacy pose." But unless information technologies are employed productively, they will not offer the leverage on information access and literacy for which Lanham and others of us hope. Indeed, unless those who manage libraries and other instruments of scholarly discourse are prepared to embrace the language of productivity, we will find our ability to provide socially equitable access to information weakened as decisions are made about where investments for democratic education will be directed. I look at managed health care and the Western Governors' University and fear that traditional universities and their libraries will lose ground, not because we have failed to embrace information technology, but because we have failed to embrace it productively. I fear that outcome most because it imperils the wonderful accomplishment of libraries and because it could significantly weaken the public good that free libraries have been creating for the past 150 years.