Monday, 29 November 2010

Higher Education

The reaction to Lord Browne's Independent Review has concentrated on funding and tuition fees, missing a vital dimension to the debate about the future of higher education policy. Behind every spending decision should lie two factors: 1)the cost and 2) what you get in return for your money. The second factor, what students (or more precisely, graduates) are going to get in return for their money, has not been given enough attention. What should the universities' side of the bargain be?

Port Meadow

'Make Oxford Paris' read one banner at the Oxford Education Campaign protest a few weeks ago. My personal fantasy is the return of universities as they were in the 1960's. Then there were, on average, 19 students in a lecture and 4.2 in a tutorial. My impression is that universities were communities of learning rather than the factories that some resemble today. As an Oxford student this may sound like your reality rather than a day dream but it isn't sustainable in the current system. Chris Patten, the Chancellor of our university, spoke out earlier this year about the great gap in funding, which means that the university is running at a loss. 

It is a feature of developed economies that the cost of services like education rise over time. This phenomenon, called the 'cost disease', was diagnosed and explained by economist William Baumol. To understand the ailment, first consider how the manufacturing industry has the potential for large productivity increases. Advances in technology mean that a car, for example, can now be almost entirely built by a machine, and quickly too. Unlike manufacturing, we cannot standardise the education process or create faster automated teaching machines. The human touch is crucial. 

There have been some technological innovations, like e-learning, but the time it takes to prepare a lecture or mark work will never change. Whereas costs can fall in a manufacturing sector that is experiencing productivity rises even when there are pay rises, education becomes more expensive every time teachers get pay increases because there is no concomitant increase in productivity. Wages nevertheless do increase in the education sector to maintain a pay differential from the increasing wages in the productive sectors. 

The key lesson to take from Baumol's Cost Disease is that an ever larger proportion of an economy's money will have to be pumped into education each year to maintain any given level of quality. An increasing student population only exacerbates this, which is relevant in the context of UK higher education. In 1963 there were 31 universities and 120,000 students. Today there are 152 universities and 2m students. 

Lionel Robbins, another economist, led the first review of higher education undertaken in 1961 and the advice he gave to the government built upon the following principle: universities should be accessible to all who wish to attend and are qualified by ability and attainment. Accordingly, the student population had to be able to expand. If the student population was fixed, then a rise in the demand for higher education would create competition for places and that would threaten the access which Robbins' principle commanded. Teamed with the coming of age of the baby boomers, the university population began to swell. Public funding, however, was not so bountiful and as a result of the pressures on university coffers the student to staff ratio more than doubled from 8:1 in 1963 to 17:1 in 1999.  If labour input is an indicator of quality, then something has been lost in higher education. 

Despite the fall in labour input, the prestige of British universities has risen in past decades. To an extent British students benefit from this; their degrees are recognised worldwide and international fees subsidise their studies. However, the research output has only been made possible by diverting resources from teaching. The Research Assessment Exercise, for example, allocates funding to departments based on their research output, which gives academics the incentive to substitute time that they could spend teaching for time writing papers. In the 1960's PhD students rarely took tutorials as they do now. 

The incentives to produce research are now so embedded in the academic labour market that it will be hard to reverse, but they could be counteracted by recognising and rewarding high quality teaching. (In fact, I'm just going to take this moment to thank my former lecturer at the University of Bristol, Gervas Huxley, for sharing with me some of the ideas that I have expressed here. He was voted 'the best of Bristol' lecturer in a recently established competition, which is an example of an effective and low cost way to reward brilliant teaching.)

"Economics is the science that studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses" wrote Robbins. It would not be impossible to implement my sixties university utopia but we know from Baumol that it would require directing drastically huge amounts of funding to higher education. Where would that sort of money come from (students? the tax payer?) and at what cost (what services/alternatives would have to be foregone as a result?)? Robbins also wrote that "Economics brings into full view that conflict of choice which is one of the permanent characteristics of human existence. Your economist is a true tragedian." I'm not convinced there has to be a tragedy. Inspired by fantasy we should discuss, within the constraints of the funding available, what we want to get out of higher education. Equipped with realistic demands on the quality and character of our higher education, we will be in a stronger position to avoid being short changed and disappointed. 

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