A Form Guide for Universities

In today’s Oz, Philip Clarke and Nicholas Graves write about the ‘academenomics’ of forms. A snippet:

since the internet reduces the cost of collecting information to almost nothing, administrators often collect much more than they need, even if it imposes costs on others. This is what economists would term a negative externality associated with the production of forms.

What can be done to turn the bureaucratic tide?

One solution would be to create an internal market for the collection of information within universities. This would require those filling out forms to be paid a small fee to compensate them for the time taken. … those creating forms would need to equate the value of the information collected with its true cost, thereby reducing the incentive for ever more paperwork.

An alternative solution could be for academics at the receiving end of forms to respond with their own forms. They would do this by sending a stock reply to administrators acknowledging the importance of the form received but pleading limited time and seeking vital information.

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2 Responses to A Form Guide for Universities

  1. conrad says:

    This over-use of surveys etc. is so bad where I work for both staff and students, the response rate we get for things like the student satisfaction ratings for subjects are often less than 20%, which means you always end-up with these really bimodal distributions (basically a fair chunk of the respondents are those that really hated or really loved your subject). This can be really bad news (or good news, if no-one really hated your subject), since it can massively bias the mean, so your subject gets a low rating. If this happens, some person that doesn’t understand the first thing about statistics will ask you what you will change about your perfectly good subject to get the ratings higher, and so you end up changing subjects for the worse to please the 8 out of 200 people in your subject that complained.
    A good example of where this makes things worse is the kids coming into uni that have done weird stuff like memorize essays etc. for Year 12 (apparently quite common now). Many of the guys are in the mindset that everything should have a perfect method and solution, which might good for maths, but isn’t very good for social science subjects. If you then give them an assignment that doesn’t resemble a dot-to-dot puzzle, they complain and give you low marks. Now, because the distribution of marks given to most subjects is quite high, even a small number of complainers will cause your subject to score more poorly than most, even if you get a reasonable number of people that really liked the idea of doing something open-ended. So this basically rules out giving any assignments that are open-ended due to a small number of complainers and small response rates. It’s also something that is clearly useful for students to learn that they don’t because of this problem (and no doubt many employers then wonder why social-science graduates never learn to think for themselves anymore!). So this is a good example of a problem that occurs that has negative consequences because of the over-use of surveys and bureaucrats not understanding the problems of poor sampling.

  2. Ryan says:

    I know they alluded to it in the article but I was very unimpressed that the best solution two academics in the field of ‘academenomics’ could come up with was to send another form asking about the priority and validity of the first. Not exactly visionary thinking, is it? The problem of the explosion of paperwork and administrative work put in by academics requires a fundamental shift in uni structure and a re-evaluation of the role of academics in universities.

    And in any case, sending a form will not drive down the volume of paperwork. It merely increases the transaction cost of getting a form filled out. The form will need to be filled out, sooner or later. Forms aren’t interchangeable – they aren’t part of the same currency – hence prioritising one form over another will not lead to lower supply of the lower-priority form merely because there is greater demand for the higher-priority form.

    Whatever, I didn’t do economics. I still maintain that their solution is bizarre and a little embarrassing for both of them.

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