The local university has implemented a new course/faculty evaluation plan. A significant number of faculty members hate it because it requires far more time and demands all too often quantification of the qualitative and the unquantifiable, and it also requires using the same parameters for describing learning outcomes for all the various disciplines. The result is that either professors must oversimplify or only evaluate those aspects of their courses that can be described and measured by the accepted parameters. The reason for the adoption of the new evaluation system was to provide “hard data” for use by university administrators to prove to accrediting bodies and to the state legislature that the university is successful in educating students, in short, to make the administrators’ jobs easier and to present “data” that the legislators can understand at a glance. Or in other words, the lower-paid faculty must spend even more time on administrivia in order to better enable higher-paid administrators to justify their jobs. Put another way, to shift work to others while essentially requiring a process that will present oversimplified and often misleading results.

Furthermore, professors can be downgraded for having “too many learning objectives,” even if the nature of the course requires a number of disparate learning objectives. Of course, the easy way is simply to come up with generic learning objectives, but that results in poor data… and good data doesn’t fit the “mold” in all too many cases.

Add to that student evaluations, in which 18-22 year olds attempt to evaluate what they “need” from professors who have spent at least a decade learning and applying their expertise. Such evaluations often require even more time and effort on the part of the professors to rebut the often erroneous judgments of inexperienced students. More to the point, study after study has shown that the most consistent result of student evaluations is not improvement in education, but grade inflation, and that means that not only do ever more intrusive student evaluations put more burden on faculty and fail to improve education, but they do so in an effort by administrators primarily to make universities more “student friendly” and marketable.

This sort of work-shifting permeates society today.

Take another cost-shifting measure – the decision by major U.S. airlines, except Southwest, to charge fees for checked luggage. While this has increased revenue for those airlines, it’s also increased costs for TSA, which has to hire more employees to screen the vastly increased number of carry-on bags, as well as increasing security screening delays at U.S. airports. This cost-shifting creates costs for the taxpayers who fund TSA and delays for passengers.

Then, too, as I’ve mentioned before, the proliferation of email requests for status reports in organizations and businesses results in employees spending a greater and greater share of their workday answering such requests rather than doing actual work. It may make their supervisors’ tasks easier, but it’s a drag on productivity, which isn’t all that high these days anyway, and it’s resulted in longer workdays for employees.

Every time that I take an airline flight, buy an electronic book, stay in a hotel, purchase an appliance or piece of furniture, no matter how small, or even buy groceries, I’m asked or prompted to fill out a survey – and if there’s something wrong, I’m supposed to suggest how the seller or vendor could do their job better. Isn’t that their job? Yet we’ve been sold a bill of goods that the seller is just asking for our opinion because our opinion counts, when it’s both as marketing tool and a way to obtain data on a lower-cost basis.

Walmart and other retailers get in on the cost-shifting movement by setting up self-check-out lanes, resulting in fewer cashiers. More than once at stores, I’ve ended up doing self-check-out, even when a cashier could so it faster, because the lines at the cashiers were so long.

Yet another form of cost-shifting is practiced by governments, either state, local, of federal, when they offer “tax breaks” to businesses for various purposes. Those tax breaks may indeed create jobs and the like, but seldom do they cover the foregone tax revenues, which means that the “new jobs” are at least partly subsidized by the old taxpayers.

Yes, indeed, cost-shifting, another example of the capitalistic great American economy… and yet I see almost no one who’s willing to call it for what it is, an additional cost on taxpayers and consumers.

5 thoughts on “Cost-Shifting”

  1. susan says:

    Here is a combination of “cost-sharing” and grade inflation:
    I got a call asking me to rate from 1 to 10 some recent service I
    had received. The service was quite good, so I gave the person 9 out of 10.

    I got a call back asking what was wrong with the service. I said nothing was wrong but that no-one was perfect. The check-up caller kept pressing me
    for a negative comment. So I hung up.

  2. Thomas says:

    While I agree with most of your points, I think that the proliferation of self-checkout machines can only be a good thing. Never have I experienced a case where till staff could scan items faster, and in fact, they inverably slow the whole process down.

    Of course, staff are important for specific cases where people may not be able to scan all their shopping, or where help is needed. However, I would say that self-checkouts are a true boon to shoppers in general, and one for which I am grateful.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Over the years, the number of secretaries and admin assistants in government has also been reduced, with most people other than bosses expected to do all their own typing (admittedly no longer a bottleneck for equipment access, with everyone having a computer on their desk). That’s another example of where the actual doers get more pushed their way and less support; even while also having to submit more reports, stats, etc.

    The bosses are of course also subjected to this by their bosses. Ultimately the pressure comes from legislatures to provide the APPEARANCE of oversight, efficiency, and cost-containment. Some of that is of course necessary, but it should be possible to show where the categories are so structured as to be of negligible practical significance; or the costs of further data collection have gone past the point of diminishing returns.

  4. darcherd says:

    The phenomenon you describe is common to any bureaucracy, be it academic, commercial, or governmental, and is directly related to the “Peter Principle” which states in part that bureaucrats want to multiply subordinates, not rivals. Therefore, there is a natural pressure to increase the workload on subordinates in order to both justify increasing headcount, and to justify the position of those at the top. The requirements for additional reporting by faculty members to the administrative bureaucrats is a classic example.

    Another, related tendency I’ve observed in my 40-odd years working in corporate America is the pressure to shift metrics (and thus the related activities and objectives) from things that are hard to measure to things that are easy to measure. For example, senior management (often triggered by a study by Finance) will identify a group of employees who are providing support for customers to assist them with questions, escalations, and in general smooth the process of doing business with the company. Since the value those employees provide can’t be easily quantified, the company decides to reduce or eliminate their role altogether. This produces an immediate financial benefit (cost reduction) and Finance look like heroes to senior management. The consequences of the action (reduced customer satisfaction, loss of market share, etc.) that result are almost impossible to directly link to the removal of the people who were helping the entire sales cycle to operate smoothly, so no chickens ever come home to roost at the door of the original decision-makers.

    And at any rate, the executives who made the original decision will have long moved on by the time a new set of executives realize they need to have some people in place to assist customers through the sales process, and so a new program will be established (with much fanfare) and the entire cycle starts all over again.

    1. invah says:

      Phenomenal points.

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