Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

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.