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April 13, 2007

Jeff Randall on Universities

He's sort of right but not quite:

This cannot be the best use of finite resources. We would be far better served by concentrating on quality rather than quantity. Industry keeps telling us that Britain needs more engineers and scientists, but decent universities, such as Queen Mary and Exeter, are closing their chemistry departments through lack of student demand. Meanwhile, football studies is all the rage.

It's time to stop this madness. Richard Lambert, the CBI's director-general, suggests that we should skew top-up fees, currently capped at £3,000, to favour those subjects that will benefit the country. If we are going to subsidise anything, let it not be comedy courses.

So, if you elect to study electrical engineering, physics or applied mathematics, the state is happy to pay. But a three-year degree in surf and beach management (yes, it exists) will cost you £10,000 or more. It makes sense.

Getting the bureaucrats to decide who gets a free education and who gets to pay for it won't solve the problem. That decision will inevitably be skewed by the political games people play. What Labour politician pleading for the support of the harpy wing of the party will be able to say that Women's Studies is not valuable? The decision that Black Studies is unworthy of public support will piss off the professional racists. Tories and Lib Dems will face similar pressures on other courses (which Tory would want to go against the landed grandees who want subsidies for Land Management courses for their thicker nephews?).

No, the answer is to entirely free the universities and for them to charge what they wish for any program. Then the choices will be made by the students, the only people in the whole system who actually face the correct incentives.

If industry then wails that it's not getting enough chemists then they can sponsor people if they wish, or even raise wages to increase the incentives.

April 13, 2007 in Academia | Permalink

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Comments

"No, the answer is to entirely free the universities and for them to charge what they wish for any program. Then the choices will be made by the students, the only people in the whole system who actually face the correct incentives."

The choices in that case would be made by middle-class parents.

Posted by: far2old4this | Apr 13, 2007 9:20:28 AM

Industry is always saying that they need more chemists -- yet I read recently that the greatest number of people who did one degree and moved into another field is... you guessed it, chemistry students.

Posted by: Blithering Bunny | Apr 13, 2007 9:38:17 AM

"The choices in that case would be made by middle-class parents."

Oh, those neo-satans of New Labour Britain, middle class parents.

Quite frankly I don't give a toss who goes to University to study what as long as I'm not paying for it. If someone wants to lay out £15,000 on David Beckham studies compared to £15,000 on a car or a deposit on a house then good luck to them. I won't be hiring them, and nor will David Beckham.

My only problem would be degree inflation: all those people who got their degrees when a 2.1 meant something from a University that used to have high standards will be in the same boat as those owning gilts in 1973.

Posted by: Kay Tie | Apr 13, 2007 10:04:15 AM

“Quite frankly I don't give a toss who goes to University to study what as long as I'm not paying for it”
Fair enough. I would prefer that University places were given to the most able, which would inevitably mean that you would be paying for at least some of it. Rather in the same way that you pay for most primary and secondary education; assuming that you pay taxes in the UK.

Posted by: far2old4this | Apr 13, 2007 11:27:38 AM

Funding of higher education could take the form of bursaries; commercial concerns would buy a course from the university or college of their choice, and place a student on it. (Of course, a student would also be able to seek any other source of funding.) Suitability of the applicant would be determined by the funding body, not the university, on the basis that they would be paying. In exchange, they may - realistically, they almost certainly would - require that students take up employment on successful completion of the course, or refund the fee if they fail. Any course for which there is no market demand would attract no funding. This is exactly how it should be; if there is no end-user demand for a programme of study, why should it exist at all? Who benefits? If no-one benefits, no-one should pay. If anyone can see a benefit, funding would be forthcoming.

Posted by: Ian Bennett | Apr 13, 2007 12:41:28 PM

"I would prefer that University places were given to the most able"

Well, yes, I would pay for excellence on the "edification" principle of the Victorian era (which also funded the great museums etc.). But if we're going to have a great pile of dross I don't want anything to do with it.

Posted by: Kay Tie | Apr 13, 2007 1:46:29 PM

Ian,

You write,

"Any course for which there is no market demand would attract no funding. This is exactly how it should be; if there is no end-user demand for a programme of study, why should it exist at all? Who benefits?"

From the study of Philosophy? Theology? Classical languages? Medieval history? History of Art? English literature? Anglo-Saxon?

Sorry, but there is nothing Thatcherism will not say when talking about (but not actually doing anything much about) saving money?

Tim adds: Which is exactly why I say let students pay and make their choice. They are indeed the market and thus the ones who shouldbe makingthe decision. That's the way we find out if here is a market demand.

Posted by: Martin | Apr 14, 2007 7:03:20 AM

Precisely, Tim. Martin, please explain who benefits from someone studying the history of art. If you believe that you would benefit, please feel free to fund a student on the course. If you think that I would benefit, please explain how. Note also that there is not simply the cost of the course to consider, there is also the opportunity cost of the student not doing something productive for the duration of the course (and afterwards).

Posted by: Ian Bennett | Apr 16, 2007 10:20:24 AM