Thursday, November 25, 2010

Student protests

It's pretty hard to come up with anything very original to say about the student protests yesterday and earlier. The fact that there is no major political party here that would reverse this increase in university fees, leaves me with the sense that the protesters are praying to a god that does not exist. As an atheist, I fully acknowledge the benefits some people derive from praying to gods that do not exist, but I don't think the protests will do any good politically.

This comment article in the Guardian made most points that are worth making. This article in the Daily Mash is, I must admit, a trenchant and effective critique of the protest movement. Any case in favour of "higher education as public good" should take it into account. This blog post calls attention to the unresolved issues with the current proposals. We learn that Nick Clegg is "haunted" by his election promise. (That's good of him. I wish Tony Blair and David Blunkett were haunted by their 2001 manifesto commitment not to introduce tuition fees. Or should we all accept that making and breaking promises is the price of winning an election?)

I actually struggle to make a principled case for HE as public good. It's relatively easy to make a practical case: e.g. that there's a slippery slope -- next we'll expect people to pay for post-16 school education, and (following Dearing's logic), since the main beneficiaries of the NHS are the patients, then patients should pay back the costs of their treatment. But, the slippery-slope argument evades the question of what's wrong with high tuition fees themselves. The other practical (not principled) case is that the fees make us out-of-step with most of the industrialized world (as I hinted previously). To elaborate on that, one could accept that high tuition fees are correct in principle, but also accept that nations compete amongst each other for academic talant and skills. Hence we risk a new brain drain not just of staff but of students. Although, that may help with the government's efforts to reduce net immigration.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Universities, conservatism and Hotelling's Law

I'm not sure what to make of Simon Jenkins' recent article in the Guardian, in whch he accuses universities of being lazy, wasteful, addicted to public money, and resistant to any form of change or innovation. He is probably being more harsh than he really feels, in order to provoke a reaction in the comments contributed by readers, and any reader who takes his article at face value will find that the comments that follow are a useful antidote.

Let's take the article seriously for a moment, and consider whether there is any truth in the central charge that conservatism is the driving force behind academic life. Unreasonable resistance to change is so widespread that it would be amazing if universities were free of it. You only have to look at some of the reaction to Obama's health care reforms to verify this: the hysteria, fear and anger of the rhetoric against these highly incremental reforms is evidence of a psychological disability to cope with any form of change and innovation, one that affects tens of millions of Americans.

But there's another reason why universities might not make the changes that Jenkins urges, and that's Hotelling's Law. That is the observation that in a lot of competitive marketplaces, the rival providers (of goods or services) tend to position themselves very close to each other, rather than go for product differentiation. If one provider does decide to aim at a particular section of the market (say, lower-cost goods) then in order to do so, he just offers goods at a very slighter lower cost than his rivals: he does not consider his cost in isolation, but relative to the competition. (As an aside, I'm not sure that hotels obey Hotelling's law, but other things do, e.g. political parties.)

In an increasingly global marketplace for staff and students, universities are understandably reluctant to go to extremes in order to capture some segment of that market. Despite Jenkins' call for 2-year degrees and year-round teaching, even if there is indeed a big market for those things, universities should be reluctant to go there. British ones are already taking a fairly extreme position on short degree timescales (most countries have 4 or more years for first degrees). And they are, reluctantly, taking an extreme position on low levels of state support for their activities. They are already well into the danger zone and should go no further.