Why do students pay for the research professors do?

Universities require their professors to publish research papers. Yet publishing your research has little to do with most of the teaching that goes on in universities. And with online teaching, we can almost completely separate teaching from research. Yet we are typically happy to dismiss these concerns by pointing out that universities have also a research purpose. But this answer is not entirely satisfying: who gets to decide what universities should do beside provide degrees and teaching?

There was a long student boycott in Quebec in 2012 that attracted worldwide attention. Students asked for free higher education. One of their core arguments for cheap tuition was that much of the university budget goes to support research. Apparently, many students would rather not pay for research. That is, if universities have to do research, then it is up to the government (or to industry) to fund it.

I think that the Quebec students are misguided when it comes to research. So let us ask why universities do research.

How did we get started? The first universities were entirely funded by the students. In fact, they were often run by the students themselves. Yet, even back then, the professors published and communicated their research eagerly. Why?

There would be great savings if we could just get rid of research. It is easy to find people willing to lecture for a fourth of the salary of a professor.

But professors are not lecturers even though they sometimes lecture. Students seek to be close to people who are perceived as leaders in their respective area. They do so because recognition from such a leader is highly valued socially. And to recruit and retain leaders, you need to pay a decent salary.

The principle is general. If you are a well-known porn star, it is likely that there are people who will pay just to get some coaching from you, precisely because you are known as a porn star. So, a computer science professor should try to be known as a computer scientist. Then students who want to become computer scientists will want to have access to this professor.

Publishing is a very natural process if you want to build up your reputation. In fact, many people who write non-fiction books do so because it will attract indirect sources of income such as consulting and training. Professors are not different: they write books and research articles because it increases their social status. In turn, this social status can be monetized.

Thus, if you want to know whether a professor is doing a decent job, you should ask whether people would be willing to pay to interact with him if we did not have universities. A good professor should be able to fund much of his research with consulting and training contracts, should he ever lose his academic position. Hence, his employer gets a fair deal even if it has to allow him to spend a great deal of time on self-directed research.

Students who are merely interested in some cheap teaching can find affordable people willing to tutor them. But that is not what motivates students to attend universities. They seek prestige. This is is why professors have to act as role models. That is why we need to pay them to publish.

My argument is falsifiable. The Quebec government could create new universities that are focused entirely on teaching. They would do no research, but they would have lower tuition fees. If students really do not care for research, they should all flock to these new universities. Of course, teaching-only universities do exist and though they attract their fair share of students, they have never disrupted conventional universities.

Daniel Lemire, "Why do students pay for the research professors do?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, December 28, 2012.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

21 thoughts on “Why do students pay for the research professors do?”

  1. So, the students want research funding to come from somewhere else besides tuition.

    As you describe their argument, “if universities have to do research, then it is up to the government (or to industry) to fund it.”

    In response, you seem to make a convoluted argument that it’s important for researchers (porn star gurus?) to be well paid.

    I don’t see how this relates to the question of where the funding should come from.

  2. Eh, kind of ignorant. Research and teaching are very closely related in most cases, and research is many areas has general social benefits — health science, engineering, etc. You don’t want to knock university research. You benefit from it every day in ways you don’t even know.

  3. Is it really the case that students pay for research in Quebec? I was under the impression that research pays for itself via government subsidy as well as the massive overheads that the universities charge on research grants.

  4. Great article. Undoubtedly professors should be paid. But its equally not just for students who can not afford to pay high fees. I am talking about the economically weaker sections of the society. They should also be given equal right to study at such universities by lowering the fees for them. Undoubtedly scholarships are there, but there are not sufficient scholarships for the people who need.

  5. Also my views regarding online teaching are “Professors can not be replaced by processors”. You need a professor from whom you can ask your doubts. Undoubtedly you can post your question on forums. But at times, you really need someone who can explain to you the same thing using pencil and paper (diagrammatically). Also at times, students questions get buried down the stack of other questions on the forums. But no matter who stupid a question is, a doubt is still a doubt and lays down the foundation for a future computer scientist.

  6. @Peter

    Even when university is “free” (from the student’s point of view), students can argue that too much of government funding goes toward research and not enough toward teaching.

  7. @Daniel. Can you please give one example of a university which is free and the students protest? I can give you a lot of examples where subsidized education is offered by governments and the governments fund research, still students do not complain.

  8. We can take quality example of Andrew Ng, who offers free education to students through coursera and still finds ways of funding his research

  9. Funding research isn’t as big a deal as most people here think. In many areas, university research produces patentable products that generate revenue for the university. Or, they get funding from government grants — that far, far exceed whatever the professor is making. In many areas professors pay their own salaries 2X to 4X over or more in the form of research grants.

    People should perhaps do a little of their own research before writing uninformed articles.

  10. @Rose

    Price does not determine how much the students complain. Compared to much of North America, higher education is free in Quebec. Yet it is in Quebec that they complain most about the fees.

  11. @Jim

    There is no question about it: a school without professor such as the University of Phoenix, can offer an undergraduate education for much less because they do not have to worry about silly professors doing silly research.

    It is simply not the case that you can justify having professors doing research for financial reasons. Professors do typically even pay for their own salaries with research grants. Patents and licensing deal can be profitable, but they are not the bread and butter of most professors. If you need convincing, think about how many patents professors doing research on XIVth century literature generate.

  12. Daniel:

    The “silly research” that you describe provides advances in medical technology, computer science, foreign policy, engineering, etc., that is responsible for a great deal of what you take for granted on a daily basis. If you don’t understand that, I won’t bother trying to explain the benefits of research in the humanities.

    Diploma mills such as U Phoenix provide second rate, inexpensive education because they courses are staffed largely by underpaid adjunct instructors with no commitment to the school or to their students. The teaching materials that they use are produced by professors doing research at real universities. But given your ignorance, you must be a U Phoenix grad, so it’s not wonder you have the opinions that you do.

  13. @Jim

    For the record, I have been a professional researcher for well over a decade. I worked in industry, in government and now in academia. I have done pretty much everything from getting federal research grants, to licensing the product of my research. You can Google me (start with Google Scholar).

    I do not deny the value of research. Quite the opposite: it is what I choose to do for a living. In fact, my blog post is an answer to those who think that research is secondary for universities and that they should focus instead on teaching. I think that they are wrong.

    But I do think that you are wrong to think that university research is playing an essential part in all the technological innovation you describe. See for example Kealey’s Sex, Science & Profits for a reference on this topic. A simple argument is this: governments could take the funding that the provide universities and put it in their research labs instead. We do not need university for innovative technology. In fact, the model we are now following, with massive government subsidies toward university research is relatively recent, dating back to after WWII. We had no trouble inventing many fantastic things before.

    That’s not to say that university research is wrong or useless. That’s what I do for a living! But you have to be realistic: corporations and individuals can innovate outside universities.

  14. Good response, Daniel. Corporations and individuals do innovate outside universities indeed. We pay for that too through inflated product prices. Government paying directly to them just means an increase in profits for those corporations, not the subsidies of research. We need to continue funding university research because it’s non-profit and benefits everyone.

  15. That’s essentially the overpaid CEOs’ argument – “You have to pay us insane salaries because you can’t manage without our awesomeness”.

    If students of the past wanted leaders in their fields and were willing to pay for them, they were free to do so – and did so. Today’s students evidently don’t want to. The students in Quebec couldn’t have made their wishes plainer.

    Why have attitudes changed? Maybe because an education these days is rarely about attaining excellence and more often about advancing employability. The vast majority of higher level education (even in the top-tier schools) recognizes this by providing top-notch teaching only to the most motivated.

    But the reasons are all irrelevant. The main point is that your argument is addressing what students should want whereas they can only be asked to pay for what they do want.

  16. @JF

    I would agree with you if that’s indeed what students wanted. But the student unions did not ask for cheaper non-research universities. They would have been insulted if the government had answered: “fine, you can get free higher education from these new non-research universities we will create.”

  17. I think that Quebec students in general tends to make a difference between undergraduate and graduate studies.

    Most undergraduates, especially in computer science, wants nothing more than a degree to get a paying job. For this example, a student wouldn’t care so much for someone with a huge reputation over class and programming skills.

    Students interested in doing research (most graduate students), on the other hand, will appreciate the notoriety of their professor and director, especially because at this level, teachers usually teaches in the sub-field they know best.

    So, the main problem is that university are attending to two major groups of students without the same expectations about what university should be like.

  18. @Adam

    Most undergraduates, (…), wants nothing more than a degree to get a paying job.

    The market value of the degree depends on the school you went to. Schools where more research is done grant more valuable degrees, as a general rule.

  19. I am not convinced about your arguments entirely. You said “That is why we need to pay them to publish.”. That is true but why undergraduate students has to pay for that? There is another side of the coin, without good students Professors can not expand their research groups, hence their research. It is a mutual benefit, you depict students as if they are from Mars and professors are ‘porn’ gurus from Andromeda. Probably, these things greatly varies from private to public universities, but I think students in Quebec has a legitimate point.

    Also you said “Students who are merely interested in some cheap teaching can find affordable people willing to tutor them.”. It is a joke, right? Student’s demonstration is not about teaching cost. If a professor is running a research project, it is not undergraduate students responsibility to fund their research.

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