University Education: Why The Lack of Accountability?


I had the BEST day a few months ago! First, I went to the movies and the theatre decided to do the viewers a favour by stopping the movie twenty minutes early. SCORE! With all the extra time my friends and I had, we decided to go grab a beer. Well it must have been one of our birthdays or something because the bartender decided to fill our glasses only halfway! AMAZING! Why can’t everyday be like this? I wish that just once – JUST ONCE – I could get a nice sandwich maker at Subway who would brighten my day by only giving me 9 inches of the 12 inch sub I order… Alas, to live in a perfect world.

It’s not all bad, though. At least I and my fellow students are fortunate enough to have instructors who sometimes do us the favour of ending class early, canceling the odd lecture here and there, and maybe even going on strike (faculty at my school, the University of Western Ontario, are teetering on the brink of a walkout/lockout)! That last one is a rarity, but it’s one of those things where you just kind of feel good when it happens, even if it doesn’t happen at your school. It’s good to know that good things still happen, y’know?

This all sounds ridiculous, of course. If theatres started cutting movies short, or if a food/beverage establishment only gave you a portion of what you ordered and paid for, you wouldn’t be happy. You’d be shocked and rightfully pissed off. You did not get what you paid for and you’d have a good mind to ask for at least a partial refund.

Contrast this with the situation in university education, where paying students (including me) are apparently universally pleased to be let out of class early or have a class canceled, and are sometimes even welcoming of a short lived academic strike. Lets use a little bit of folk behavioural economics to speculate as to why so many students love to get less than what they paid for when it comes to school.

When it comes right down to it, the operative question is: What are you paying for?

In the case of going to the movies, beer and sandwiches, the answer is clear: you’re paying to watch an entire movie on the big screen, to get a full beer, and to get every inch of the sandwich you ordered with any of the standard toppings you want (remember how annoying it was when there was a tomato shortage and Subway was rationing their tomatoes?). When it comes to university education, if we were paying to learn for its own sake would having a class ended early or canceled be a universally positive thing? Surely the full duration of class is not always required to cover the day’s material. But the

desirability of a class’s early conclusion is generally not carefully evaluated with respect to how effectively and comprehensively the material was taught. It’s just “Class is done. Sweet! Later!”. I know that’s my typical response, anyway. Similarly, yesterday I was pleased when a link to a required online reading for one of my classes was not working. I no longer had to do the reading.

Maybe Students Are Just Anti-Learning

Students are not just anti-learning. It’s just that learning for its own sake is often not the primary motivation of university students.

Last year I signed up for and paid for an eight-session yoga class. Had one of the sessions been canceled I wouldn’t have celebrated the occurrence. I would have expected either a rescheduling or a partial refund. I paid for yoga lessons; not the open Saturday morning that I would and could have had at no cost. Similarly, if I were to discover that a book that I had purchased for my own extra-curricular reading was missing a chapter, I wouldn’t celebrate the discovery; I’d be annoyed at having to go back to the store and exchange it for a non-defective book.I paid for the book; not to not read.

When it comes to university, then, what are we paying for? It isn’t always explicit, but it appears that deep down what is most important to most students is the degree and the benefits of having the degree – job opportunities, etc. When a class is ended early or canceled, or when there is a short-lived strike, our degrees are never in jeopardy. In fact, we’re basically getting them at a discount.

Same great degree, 10% less work!


It’s like your boss telling you that you can knock of early but still get a full day’s pay.

Now, of course there are limits to this. It’s not like we’re in university just for the degree. Students do want to learn, and they often need to learn what is being taught in their class in order to do what they want to do upon graduation. I’m an Occupational Therapy Masters student. I need to know how to provide care and services to people with health challenges. And even if I didn’t really need to learn anything from a class I was in – say, like one of the many Psychology courses I took during my undergrad – there’s only so many class cancellations and early dismissals that I would welcome before I began to wonder why I was paying to be in a class that rarely takes place and why the prof and school were showing such irresponsibility. But it’s not like I would openly welcome three less-than-full beers before I considered asserting my claim to full beers.

Extrinsic Motivation Can Lower Intrinsic Motivation

Anyone who’s ever taken an Introductory Psychology course in university is likely to have heard about a famous study on motivation by Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973). In this study it was found that by giving children who enjoyed drawing an extrinsic reward for drawing, they decreased children’s intrinsic motivation to draw. While at first they would draw and draw just for the fun of it, after having a reward system introduced and then ceased they were notably less motivated to draw just for the fun of it.

Similarly, there have been a number of times in which I have enrolled in classes on subjects that I was interested in but nevertheless often found the reading to be a chore and an early dismissal from class to be a welcomed surprise. Furthermore, I almost always derive greater enjoyment and learning from self-chosen reading – even nonfiction – than those assigned to me. I suspect that I am not alone in these experiences. And I suspect that a primary reason for these outcomes is that the extrinsic motivators that come with university classes serve to add stress and dampen intrinsic interest in the material.

We’re Also Very Tolerant of Low Quality

Students love to have a great teacher. However, it takes a lot to get students to seek corrective action in cases of unsatisfactory teaching. While students may not enjoy a less inspiring teacher and will give them lower teacher evaluations at the end of the term, they don’t seem to be as assertive as they might have been if Subway had served them a sandwich with wilted lettuce, or if a bar had served them room temperature beer. However, an unfairly low mark on an essay or an unexpectedly demanding test is often sufficient to put students on a warpath against their instructor. Haggling, emailing department heads, petitioning, any and all of these options are fair game.  Why? Because we often care more about grades than about our education.

Why The Lack of Accountability?

Students are far more willing to accept reduced quantity and quality of university education than they are to accept comparable performance reductions in other products and services they buy because the extrinsic motivating factors (positive and negative) tied to university study have largely overwhelmed many students’ intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake. This not intended as a criticism of students or faculty. It’s just observation and speculation.

20 thoughts on “University Education: Why The Lack of Accountability?

  1. The problem with higher education when compared to the subway worker, is that if the subway worker does a bad job he will loss his job, whereas the professor is protected by tenure. Because of this there is a sense of futility in trying to do something about the teacher. Further to this, there is always a risk that the professor will find out about the students efforts and ‘punish’ them.

    Truth be told, from my classmates it seem that a lot of them are there to get a job, they don’t care about learning or knowing, just about getting that piece of paper at the end of the year(s).

    PS one of my teachers missed 4 out of 14 classes last year, he didn’t care and either did the students, they didn’t understand and his absence meant less work.

  2. BB: While profs do have FAAAAR greater job security than Subway staff, that doesn’t really pertain to my issue. My issue was that the *students* view their purchasing of admission to university programs and classes very differently than they view their purchasing of admission to movies, sports events, etc., and their purchases of various products. It seems that it rarely even occurs to students that they can/should pursue corrective action when they’re getting low-value from their uni education. And if it does occur to them, they often don’t care nearly enough to even try to do something, because at the end of the day they’re busy, stressed and are primarily concerned with their grades and their degree (two things which they’ll definitely seek corrective action with regard to if they feel slighted).

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  4. There are many ingredients in this stew. I don’t think it’s as simple as a lack of accountability. It may be true for some, and it may be partly true for many, but there are other things to consider.

    The beer and sandwich you buy are consumed pretty much right away. Your 8-week yoga session will end in a foreseeable future. Maybe it’s difficult to see the connection between the day your bank account lost $3000 to tuition and the four months that it was invested in. If we paid a weekly amount for our classes, would people wonder more about the value of each dollar? Possibly.

    But possibly not- because there are many other things going on here.

    There are many costs that make up our tuition. Library services, health services, student council stuff that I know nothing about, gym fees. Maybe we look at this holistic picture and don’t mind a class or two being cancelled in the grand scheme of things (I am not talking about the strike here- that is a different matter). As long as we are invested in our education, learn what we need to, develop the required skills- does a 6-hour deficit in professor babble change our candidacy to our professions, or the depth and breadth of what we have to offer? I don’t think it does, and I don’t think students only think about the degree they will receive at the end. Is every single lecture necessary? Do textbooks sometimes not suffice?

    Regarding action. You’re right- it does take more effort to change things at a higher level than at your local Subway. When you walk into Subway, you are the customer. It could be argued, however, that in a university, both the student and the professor are customers- or clients if you want to be fancy. While it’s true that a student pays and a professor gets payed- they both are giving to and receiving from the university.

    Rewards. When you get a free sandwich at Subway, it may just be a free sandwich, but it took little time and effort on your part. It may be that students do not want to put in the effort to change something at higher levels- but it may also be that a small reward obtained easily is more pleasurable. Maybe it’s more empowering; likely, the manager is not going to fight you on an extra tomato. You feel intellectually superior, nobody challenges your views, and- you have an extra tomato. Today.

    Anyway, there are a lot of other things swarming in my mind right now, but I’m going to go to bed so I don’t miss class tomorrow… ; )

  5. Interesting. I was tempted to suggest replacing “Students are anti-learning” with “People are anti-work”, but I read on and I think you hit the nail on the head re: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic rewards. People are not anti-work. They love their extra-curricular involvements, but almost universally feel weighed-down by their primary occupation.

    Work is cancelled tomorrow? Sweet!
    Toastmasters is cancelled? Awwww. Lame.

    Here’s an open question to any student who reads this: Can you think of a time when you were genuinely disappointed to hear that a class was cancelled? Rather than lucky? I can. First year Sociology with Robert Brym. Aside from the fact that it fascinated me and the lectures were entertaining, it was a fairly easy class to score well in, and it was outside of my Major. Perhaps, therefore, it was like an “extra-curricular” in a sense.

    I’m interested to know how we can promote this source of intrinsic value in our primary occupations. Will most of these students endure their means-to-an-end Educations in order to acquire and tolerate their means-to-an-end Jobs? Can they change their perspectives in order to live their lives as an End? It seems like Extrinsic rewards will always play a part in our lives (we need to work to acquire resources). I wonder if a change in perspective can overcome the vague oppressive weight that comes with.

  6. Since I posed the questions, I feel I should throw out my own attempt at an answer.

    I believe we can change the way we think about these things. We have the power to embrace the struggles of life as a sport. This is how I’ve come to think of it. The more I play the sport, the better I get at it, and the sport helps me grow stronger and more graceful. From this perspective, there is intrinsic value in everything. I find myself dreading Monday much less.

    Just sayin’.

  7. Present bias (preferring short term gain to rational long term benefits) explains why we like class being cancelled.

    Overall I think you put far too much emphasis on university education being a “product” and students being “consumers.” It’s a dangerous mindset in a system where administrations are already moving to more corporate models (including the executive raises and mass production techniques of larger class sizes).

    How would you frame your discussion in a country with free post-secondary education? Would it still be a product sold to consumers?

    Also, I don’t see why we should be mad at profs for striking. I want the teachers and TAs that I take (took) courses from to be able to support themselves and their families so that they can actually focus on teaching and not worrying about making a mortgage payment or feeding their kids.

  8. We have a teacher who regularly has no idea what he is talking about and spends long periods of time trying to figure it out during class time. One student said he would make a petition but that was weeks ago and hes done nothing. Should, i do something, i agree hes a terrible teacher, but is it worth the effort, and what will actually happen?

  9. Hey Ian,

    Good point about the Present Bias. Hadn’t thought of that, but it’s definitely relevant. However, I still think the factors I discussed are highly pertinent. I mean, I’m a tutor and I arrange to work with a student 4 days a week for the school year and get paid as such, if I need to cancel or shorten a session here or there for personal appointments the student, I imagine, will expect a refund (or to not have to pay) for my missed session. Why? Because the student is paying for me to spend those sessions with them; if I don’t do that, then what is the student paying for?

    With university education, the extrinsic factors are often the primary motivators of enrollment and so as long as they’re not disrupted, students often will not even be inclined to advocate for their receipt of precisely what they had paid for. I’m not criticizing students for valuing things like degrees, grades and the opening of doors in the future over the intrinsically valued pursuit of understanding; as I said in the post, I often serve as a great exemplar of the very phenomena I’m talking about. I’m just acknowledging it because I think it is interesting and important. And one of the grounds on which it is important is that I think that it lowers the standards of accountability for university institutions.

    Oh, and I’m definitely not intended to cast ire on profs for striking. While I haven’t really read into the UWO issue much at all, from what I gather I would fully support the profs in this one, as they are fighting to protect tenureship which protects their academic freedom. My post was not intended to criticize students or faculty. It was intended to shine light on the overarching institutional culture and values within which both groups behave. It was inspired by the Freakonomics approach of using economic principles and assumptions to understand behavioural patterns.

    I see the merit in your complaint about the commercialization/corporatization of higher learning and how my post might contribute to it. My thinking is that by drawing attention to the factors I addressed, I helped shine a bit of light some contributing factors behind this shift toward commodifying education – e.g., students valuing degrees, grades and increased social opportunities later far more highly than learning for its own sake.

  10. I dunno what you should do, BB. The other student’s ultimate inactivity and your being undecided as to what you will/should do is fully understandable. You’re busy students who have to prioritize and look out for your long-term best interests, and your ability to graduate with competitive grades, etc. and not have an unduly chaotic life now are more basic necessities than having the best learning experience in each class. And if you did do something, it’s not like much positive change would be likely to occur in time for you to benefit from it, though it may benefit future classes.

  11. Randy: I can answer your question about having classes whose cancellation would disappoint me. First, I’m gonna sympathize with you on Robert Brym. I would also add my John Vervaeke Cognitive Science classes! I love John V!

    As for what can be done to promote an increase in intrinsic interest in learning, firstly, we need more inspiring and entertaining teachers. This is difficult, however, because research calibre is a far greater priority in university departments than teaching skill when it comes to faculty selection, retention and promotion. John V is an OUTSTANDING teacher who inspires excitement and a deep genuine intrinsic interest in the material, learning in general and various forms of philosophical idealism. But he doesn’t publish much. Ergo, he rarely has any hard and firm job security and he constantly has to fight for what he gets. The institutional incentive structure is often stacked against good teaching, not in favour of it.

  12. In addition to the generally-applicable human aversion to work (preferring pleasure now, rather than working now to get something later), there is also the necessary discomfort of the learning process itself.

    That is, humans have a preference for the familiar, only partly offset by curiousity. Learning necessarily takes the student to an uncomfortable place: they are confronted with their lack of experience or skill or knowledge, and get nothing out of it until they learn.

    It’s quite natural to be averse to this, and to feel joy when it is suspended.

  13. But sometimes we positively love learning. I and friends of mine have derived amazing enjoyment and satisfaction from self-chosen extracurricular learning endeavours. And kids, they’re frequently intrinsically motivated to learn new things. However, I get the impression, and research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation backs me up, that sometimes something that a person would enjoy doing on their own accord becomes less enjoyable when it is assigned to them.

  14. I wonder if that has been explored more deeply? The next question, for me is, why?

    Perhaps because when something is “assigned” to me, it probably has an authority structure backing it up. Suddenly now my crayon drawing is going to be judged and assessed by people of experience, who have the power to elevate or demote me. The seriousness and the risks are higher. If I take a creative detour and don’t finish my assignment on deadline, now I will be punished. So there is less flexibility for my creative time. The assignment probably has certain parameters (eg. “You are to draw a picture of your family and your house”). Now my creativity has been given limits. Even worse, those limits were decided on by somebody else, not me. I have lost a significant degree of creative control. If I do well and please my assigner, *they* will get to choose the next reward and decide on my next assignment. I am now being streamed through somebody else’s program. Not only that, they will receive some of the credit for my accomplishment. Or, if I do poorly, it will reflect badly on them. Suddenly I have more pressure riding on me.

    Given all of these changes, perhaps it’s not surprising that assigned work now suddenly seems less fun than work that springs spontaneously from my own fascinations

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  16. This reminds me of the popular debate in the education sphere about compulsory reading and compulsory credits (in high school). I know in my high school experience, I had no choice but to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Grade 10, and King Lear in Grade 12, etc. I’ve fortunately enjoyed them both (not a lot of thanks for the teachers; they were very traditional) and ended up pursuing a degree where one of my majors is English Lit. However, it does make me wonder if more students would like these compulsory readings if they were able to choose whether or not they wanted to read them.

    The illusion of choice in the classroom can help lessen the blow (ex. “You may choose to read King Lear or Macbeth in the first semester, then we’ll move to the other book in the second semester”), but is it worth it? Do kids still veer away from the classics after graduating from that class?

    A good read. Definitely relevant to my life. York is known for its 3-month strike a few years back, which almost made me not want to apply. However, despite the horrendous effects of the potential strike (as of last year, I believe), I was still perfectly okay with the school going on strike.

  17. As an educator, I would like to explore the topic of extrinsic vs intrinsic motivators more with you. And compare/contract their relative influence in academia vs employment worlds …

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