Category Archives: Academia

A Theory of (British) University Business Cycles

Put simply, the theory of political business cycles goes like this: in the run up to elections, governments increase public spending or/and lower interest rates (if they can control them) in order to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. They supply voters with more goods or cheap credit as a way to make them happy so that they will re-elect them. After the elections, however, governments have to implement drastic austerity to pay for all the goodies they supplied to voters, or increase interest rates to slow down inflation triggered by cheap credit. As a whole, political business cycles can lead to phases of booms and busts, and reduce certainty for investors in a way that is ultimately damageable for the economy. This idea was one of the reasons that led central banks to become independent in most countries. By taking away monetary tools away from governments, one could make sure that they couldn’t use them for electoral purposes.

The evidence for the actual existence of political business cycles is at best mixed. However, the overall reasoning can be useful to understand the cycles that – some – British universities go through in the context of the Research Excellence Framework, the giant bureaucratic exercise set up by the government to assess its universities and allocate funds based on research quality. Essentially, the REF can fulfill the same function as elections in the theory of political business cycles, leading to cycles of boom and bust that are ultimately damageable for research and teaching. Universities in the last REF cycle were assessed based on their research output in the 5 year period before the 31st of December 2013. While universities have spent massively in research in the run-up to the last REF, many of them are now downsizing or refocusing strongly on teaching in the direct aftermath of the period of evaluation. In a very stylized way, the REF business cycle would look a little bit like this:

The Pre-REF spending boom

The motto is “research, research, research”. Universities spend significant resources on research and new hires with established track records of publications, partly by “poaching” star researchers who carried out research funded by other institutions. Part of this expansion, however, consists in fixed-term or precarious contracts that can be disposed of after the REF deadline. This touches both research and teaching. As to research, the Times Higher documents a 63% increase in 0.2 FTE (full time equivalent) contracts in the year that preceded the REF, allowing universities to submit the publications of these short-term hires in their REF submission. Universities may have offered such positions to hitherto retired academics or academics based abroad (who are not submitted to the REF by their university) as “visiting” or “research professors” as a way to buy their publications. But this also concerned increasing spending in teaching staff on irregular contracts (teaching assistants; teaching fellows) in order to free universities’ core workforce from part of their teaching duties (seminars of marking) to increase their research output. As a result, student evaluations that are so central to league tables and student enrollments suffer, as students are taught mostly by casual or junior staff. Casual or junior staff are often better and more dedicated teachers, but students may want to actually interact with the renowned researchers at their universities.

The post-REF austerity

The motto is “teaching teaching teaching”. Once the REF is over, universities re-focus on teaching as their main source of revenue, especially since it seems that there will be much less money to be distributed than anticipated after BIS blew its budget. The fixed-term teaching and research “industrial reserve army” is disposed of and teaching duties are reallocated to the core academic workforce, who is asked to teach more and mark more. Marina Warner, who resigned from the University of Essex in 2014, reports being enthusiastically encouraged to take part in the jury of the Man Booker prize in the pre-REF phase focused on “impact”, and then being told that she’d eventually have to take unpaid leave in the post-REF phase, where the things that were so praised a few months before were being flushed down the drain. However, much of the new focus on teaching does not translate in more teaching staff, but rather in increased investment in facilities and services. My own university, once the REF was over, set about to carry out a vast downsizing of its school of biomedical sciences and medicine to invest in new buildings. Emblematically, what was a cosy senior common room reserved for staff on the second floor of the King’s building has now been converted into an “informal learning space” for students. This is partly related to the format of the student surveys that have become so central as a way to assess and rank the quality of teaching: a large share of the questions in the survey actually deal with the “service” dimension (staff was accessible; timetable worked; IT resources were appropriate) rather than the actual content of courses. In line with the idea that “unleashing the forces of consumerism is the best single way we’ve got of restoring high academic standards”, student surveys are essentially like consumer surveys. What is assessed is the service that is provided rather than the quality of the content. It is a bit like writing a book or movie review where you’d give equal weight to the solidity of the cover or the comfort of the seats in the cinema as to the actual story being told.

A modest proposal to improve the efficiency of assessment in universities

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Essay writing and assessment is a drag. For academics, it eats out an awful lot of time which could be devoted to research or other productive activities counting for tenure. For students, writing essays requires a great deal of investment and time which could be more productively spent on facebook or other things that the youth of today does. Moreover, the extent to which it really is able to assess learning – rather than abilities acquired or inherited completely outside university – is questionable.

Luckily, the student side of it is being rationalised along market principles. A couple of weeks ago, at a time where most students are precisely writing essays for May deadlines, I was handed out the card above right in front of the entrance of my university. The man who was distributing cards for this “essay and dissertation help” company was surely unaware that I am actually supposed to mark essays rather than write them. Arrived in my office, I checked the website (deleted here not to provide any “advertisement help”) and the “help” provided is fairly straight forward: they write essays for you. You give the subject, word length, the deadline, and the website provides an “instant quote” with a list of prices which depend on the grade you want. This is what I got for a 3500 word essay in politics with a deadline in two weeks:

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Now, this system has a number of deficiencies. First, how can you be sure that you will get the grade that you paid for? I wonder how the writers who work for this essay mill – surely drawn from the army of underpaid PhD students roaming around in need of income to survive – manage to lower their level to a 2.2 standard, for instance. Second, given the somehow shady nature of the activity, how can students who paid for a First and got a 2.2 obtain compensation? They surely won’t seek redress from justice by exposing their own practices. Third, this does nothing for the time wasted by academics to mark these essays, so that the system remains broadly inefficient. There is no reason why students should be the only ones benefiting from the wonders of outsourcing.

A simple solution to this problem would be to diversify the activities of these essay mills to cater for the needs of academics as well. Teachers would outsource the marking of the said essays to the same companies that write them for students. Shady “essay mills” would become very respectable “assessment contractors”. This would increase the efficiency of assessment for both students and academic staff. The first advantage of this would naturally be to relieve academics from the burden of reading and marking essays. The second would be to reduce the uncertainty for students: if the same company writes and assesses the essays, it can make sure that they get the grade that they paid for. The natural evolution of this would of course be to suppress the essays altogether, and students would pay the assessment contractors directly for their mark. The payroll costs of the assessment contractors would go down because no actual writing would take place, and profitability for shareholders would increase. As I argued in another modest proposal, there is no reason that the practice of marketisation that has been so successful elsewhere shouldn’t be extended to assessment, for the benefit of teachers and learners.

 

“A useless pile of half-truths and sensationalistic linkbait”

Dear Mr. Salustri,

I am the author of the piece “how academia resembles a drug gang” that you describe on your blog with the words above. You also write that it is “mortally flawed”, “laughable” and “a complete mischaracterization”. You call my argument “stupid” in a reply to a comment on your piece which defends mine.

My piece, originally published on my blog in November last year, has now been viewed 267’000 times (not counting the version on the website of the London School of Economics), shared more than 10’000 times on Facebook and more than 2000 times on Twitter. I was the first to be astonished by this success, but I assume that it wouldn’t have been shared so widely if it was only “sensationalistic clickbait” and didn’t contain some real insights about the functioning of academia. The comments about the blog have been overwhelmingly positive (on twitterhere or here). Outlets such as Science, the Times Higher education have reported about it. The title is of course overtly provocative, but the piece tries to make a very serious point by using comparative data. You essentially dismiss all of it with the qualifiers above. I thought I should reply to some of your claims, at least those that I can make sense of.

Firstly, you are right to say this piece is “not what one should expect from the London School of Economics” because I work at King’s College London, as is made clear at the bottom of the article. This just shows how carefully you have read the piece.

Secondly, you criticize my perspective, arguing that academics are “not in it for the money”. Now, this is not the point that I make in the piece. My point is to outline the dynamics of dualisation in academia between a shrinking core of insiders and an expanding core of outsiders in precarious positions. I use drug gangs as the most extreme example of such a situation, by trying to explain why “outsiders” accept to stay in academia in spite of very precarious job situations. I am happy to read that your combined income “allows my wife and I to not be particularly worried about our finances”, because many academics are: precisely because of the dynamics I talk about. The incentives are surely not only money, but also precisely the things that you cite (although if you want to “escape pedantry”, academia is probably not the right place to go). My point is that the difference between what is promised to prospective PhD students and the actual reality of academic prospects is huge, just like in a drug gang. I am not saying that academia is like a drug gang, I argue that its logic is similar. I accept that it is an inconvenient characterization, especially for respectable tenured professors, and others have also dismissed it as stupid *without even reading the piece*, but I still think it is accurate.

Thirdly, you criticize how I use the data and evidence in different countries. It is of course true that Slovakia produces much less PhDs than the United States, but the proportion of PhDs as as share of the population is surely the relevant measure, and not the absolute number because that’s what gives an idea of the capacity of different countries to “absorb” their production of PhDs. Of course Slovakia produces fewer PhDs, but Slovakia also has much fewer potential jobs. I accept the idea that the academic job market is not limited by national boundaries, and is largely transnational. Now even if we would consider the world as a whole, the relation between the “global production” of PhDs and the number of permanent jobs available changed dramatically: the number of jobs available has been massively outpaced by the production of PhDs. Now this precisely supports my point. After that, you write that I do not take into account the Bologna Process, “ the anti-science and anti-education lobbies” in the US, “the effect on academia of the billions of dollars that America spends on defence – more than any other country in the world”, I ignore Germany’s “tumultuous recent history, including reunification and becoming probably the most important country in the EU”, and my analysis of the UK “ignores the impact of the development and growth of the EU on UK, which has been staggering”. Well, I also completely ignore the fact that the weather in the UK is usually bad, that Germany won the World Cup in 1990 and that the United States put a man on the moon in 1969. I simply do not understand how the factors you mention challenge my analysis, and you make no effort to explain how either. Being Portuguese, I am well aware of the context of austerity in Greece and Portugal, but again, this reinforces my point: the discrepancy between the increase in the number of PhDs before the crisis and severe cuts afterwards has created a large mass of “outsiders” left with dire job prospects.

Coming back to the general discussion about PhDs, I happen to have had a look at another piece published on your blog which discusses a similar argument than the one I make. I was particularly struck by one segment of it:

Getting a doctorate isn’t (or, rather, shouldn’t be) just for specializing in a particular area; it gives one a chance to refine one’s thinking skills, to become a better reasoning agent, to make better decisions generally.  And this gets us back to the success of a society.  The better people can think, the better the decisions they make, and everyone will benefit. Some find this laughable because of the cost, time, and effort required to get a PhD.  What’s the point, they might argue, in getting a doctorate if you’re just going to be a tradesperson, or a shopkeeper, or an office worker What’s the point indeed.  Most people who would ask such questions haven’t got advanced education anyways. Which rather proves my point.

I found this piece problematic and condescending. I find it perfectly legitimate for people “who do not hold advanced degrees” to question how the money is spent in higher education, especially if they are subsidizing rich people to get these “advanced degrees” while themselves or their children are often excluded from them: rich kids are highly overrepresented in college, so that higher education spending if often a transfer from the low-educated poor to the higher-educated rich. Of course I agree with you that education is good for everyone, but dismissing criticism as simply “stupid” – which seems to be your method of analysis in general – simply delegitimizes the critical approach and openness that should characterize academia. Second, it is all good and well to write that getting a doctorate is not about finding a job but becoming a better citizen, but it is is fairly naive to think that PhD students do not build expectations as to a career in academia, and the point I was making is that the structure of the academic job market is bound to disappoint these expectations.

Please note that i have refrained from using the kind of vocabulary that you use in your own post, even if it was fairly tempting.

Yours faithfully,

Alexandre Afonso

Dealing with email bankruptcy

On January 1st, New York Times journalist Nick Bilton, acknowledging that he would never be able to answer all of them, deleted a backlog of 46,315 unanswered emails and, officially declared email bankruptcy. A number of high-profile individuals have declared email bankruptcy over the last decade, the first being Lawrence Lessig in 2004. Just like you would declare it impossible to pay back your debts, by declaring email bankruptcy you acknowledge that is reasonably impossible to answer all your backlog of emails, you delete all of them and officially notify your whole address list with an apologetic email along these lines:

Dear person who has sent me an email over the last 4 years,

Having accumulated a completely unmanageable number of unanswered emails, I had to take the difficult decision to delete all of them. I sincerely apologise for letting you down. If you want me to answer your email, please re-send it to me. I promise that I will try to keep up with emails in the future.

Sincerely,

The problem with this procedure is that it constitutes what can be called a disorderly default. Imagine that any individual, firm or government could decide overnight that they didn’t need to pay back their debts: it would be chaos. Nobody would lend money to anyone in fear of not getting their money back. Similarly, a disorderly email bankruptcy can have dramatic consequences. Why would I send emails to people if they can decide at any time that they don’t need to reply? With such a level of uncertainty, in the long run nobody will be sending emails to anyone. If you think about it, there is no reason why we should deal with email bankruptcy differently from a “normal” bankruptcy. We need procedures to make sure that people will reply to their emails, while at the same time helping individuals overwhelmed by a mountain of unanswered emails.

An obvious solution would be an email backlog restructuring procedure. First, individuals should formally file in a formal request for email bankruptcy (below) to be placed under the protection of the state. You don’t want the enforcers of the people you owe replies to come break your fingers. Second, individuals would be placed under the monitoring of a third party and granted more time to reply to their emails. Bailiffs could come to your house and make sure that you devote all your time to replying to the emails. Alternatively, this third party could reply to the unanswered emails, but in exchange of a drastic email adjustment programme to make sure that insolvent emailers will always reply to their emails in future. Of course, the emails answered by the third party should be paid back with an interest. A central goal of these email adjustment programs would be to teach you not to send tons of emails eliciting replies that you won’t be able to answer, and punish you for profligate emailing behavior.  Eventually, in last resort, an email backlog “haircut” can be envisaged in case individuals have to default, but the conditions imposed on the debtor should be even harsher for instance by auctioning their computer material. Even then, this solution would still be less catastrophic than the disorderly email bankruptcies described above.

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A Modest Proposal to Improve Value for Money for Customers of Universities

Students increasingly want “value for money” from their university education. On a number of occasions, I have heard or read students concerned about what they get for the money they pay, especially with respect to the different individual components of their education. I have received emails calculating the price of individual modules saying that for that money, they’d expect a speedy return of marked essays, or heard students voicing concerns about how much they were paying for each hour of lecture or seminar that they attended. A friend of mine at another university told me that one of their students had asked for money back after one seminar session was cancelled. If you think about it, it is fairly normal that the introduction of fees has led students to put a price on each individual component of their education, and assess more closely the value that they get for their money. Arguably, the value of fees has tripled since they were introduced, but it is difficult to argue that the quality of teaching can triple as well.

This movement of pricing is what many people call the “marketisation” of universities, often with a tone of disgust. I do not think that this marketisation has gone far enough. Students pay very high fees to get an education, but they get little choice about the product that they get. If you compare universities to true commercial enterprises, you’ll understand that they actually sell a very small number of products, and choice, which is primarily what a market system should deliver, is actually very limited. Choosing a degree works as if you could choose between different airlines to get from point A to point B, but each airline would only have one class, you wouldn’t be able to choose your seat, there would be no speedy boarding and the price would be the same if you booked 3 months or 1 day in advance. Precisely, airlines could be a good model for universities to pursue their movement of marketisation, with a much greater deal of choice in price and quality of products for their customers. A simple way would be to introduce a clear and transparent price list for all the different services that we provide, allowing students to choose different speeds and quality of service. This could look like this:

Price of seats in lecture halls: 3 pounds standard, 5 pounds to sit in the front, luxury seats with reclinable back and built-in head massage to stimulate thinking: 10 pounds per lecture. Note-taking service by experienced unemployed PhDs available.

Replying to students’ emails: 2 pounds within a week, 5 pounds within 2 days, 10 pounds for a 1-day service. For an additional 3 pounds, correction of eventual spelling mistakes or typos.

Student meetings to discuss dissertations: 20 pounds an hour; 30 for a service with notes taken. Business premier service with gourmet coffee, cookies and shoe-polishing on demand (booking in advance recommended).

Recommendation letters: pricing per length and degree of positiveness of the letter. Extra pricing for the placement of specific words: “outstanding”, “amazing” and “mindblowing”: 30 pounds. Budget option available for 10 pounds, includes “alright” and “not too bad”.

Marking and feedback on essays. Budget service with no feedback and date of return undetermined: 10 pounds. Business premier service for 50 pounds: 5 pages of feedback, 10% top-up on the the grade, returned within 3 days on your doorstep by a drone, with a bottle of champagne. Personalized help in writing essays available on demand.

Credit cards and paypal accepted.

Related posts:

How Margaret Thatcher Made Britain a Soviet State

When I moved to the United Kingdom a year and a half ago, I thought that I was moving to a free market experiment. Margaret Thatcher and her followers – from Blair to Cameron – had crushed the unions, liberalized labour and financial markets, privatized public services, reformed the state following business principles and reduced its interference in the economy. They had freed us from the threat of socialism, its bloated Kafkaesque bureaucracies and its mountains of red tape. I was aware of the massive social inequalities which had emerged as a result, but this was perhaps the price to pay for more freedom and a smaller state, for everything being faster, more fluid, agile and efficient.

The Kafka Bank

I kept this illusion for about three days after moving here, until I tried to open a British bank account. I chose a bank because of its declared “ethical” and responsible approach – it turned out that it was in fact severely mismanaged and its chairman was an avid user of Crystal meth and male prostitutes, but this is irrelevant here. To open a bank account, you need to prove that you live at a particular address. However, there is no government authority where you can go to register and prove that you live somewhere. Because of its concern for the freedom of individuals, Britain also doesn’t have ID cards. A plan to introduce them was axed by the current government in 2010. You have to pay council tax where you live, but it can be in the name of your flatmates or your landlord. The bank in question would not accept a private tenancy agreement as a proof of address, because the private tenancy market is a dodgy business full of rapacious landlords and greedy estate agents. What they accept to prove your address are letters from a bank, but this implies that you already have a bank. The only option for me to prove my address were utility bills, for which of course I needed to wait until the end of the month. As I didn’t have a British bank account and my employer wouldn’t pay my salary on a foreign bank account, I received my first salary in the form of a cheque that I could not cash (or only at these dodgy pawnbroker shops where they charge you a 15% fee).

After a month, I received my energy bill, or more precisely an internet link to an online energy bill. Energy companies strongly encourage or force you to opt for e-billing and direct debit, and they are unwilling to send you actual paper bills, in order to save costs. The friendly Scottish person from the call centre made it clear that it was much better for trees and my wallet to go paperless. I brought the prints to the bank. They didn’t accept them as a valid proof of address because they hadn’t been sent to my physical address. I also tried with a TV license, which I had also bought paperless after I had arrived. I called the TV licensing authority asking them to send me an actual paper license. After a number of requests, what they sent me was a certificate certifying that my TV license existed online. The bank said no again because it wasn’t the actual TV license. Eventually, I managed to have utility bills sent to my address (energy companies charge you a fee for that). Once again, the bank refused because the street number on the bill was “22C”, while the address that had been entered in their “processing facility” was “22”. The lady at the bank said that the computer system in their division in charge of regulatory compliance with money laundering regulations probably wouldn’t accept it if it wasn’t exactly identical. Since the financial crisis, banks had become very careful. If I wanted the “22” to be changed into “22C”, I needed to reapply.

I gave up and went to another bank that had an agreement with my university. Supposedly, you could open a bank account with them easily online. Again because of money laundering regulations, you have to indicate where you’ve lived for the last three years. For some reason, it wasn’t possible to enter a foreign postcode, so online didn’t work. I had an employee sent to my office, who didn’t know either why foreign postcodes couldn’t be introduced online. “It’s out of the ordinary” he said. Of course, nobody that has lived abroad ever moves to London, except perhaps for a few millions a year. In total, it took 7 weeks to open a bank account, right on time to receive my second salary. I am told that it would be tricky to get a British credit card because I have no “credit history” in Britain, so I didn’t even try.

Before moving to the UK, I lived for a year in Germany, the country of rules everywhere and rigid old-style bureaucracies. To open my German account, I took my tenancy agreement to the local authority (Bezirksamt), they stamped a certificate that I brought to the bank, and my account was open within a few days. Now I assume that one of the reasons why British banks are so absurdly picky, it’s because you can apparently do a lot more with a British bank account than with a German bank account: fee-free overdraft, special conditions for loans, etc. Actually, you have access to a lot of things that can go wrong, and with which you can get yourself and the bank in trouble if you default. In Germany, as everybody knows, you are not supposed to spend more than what you have, so you simply can’t go in the red. For British banks willing to take advantage of deregulated financial markets, having customers is almost a liability, which is why they need a lot more guarantees to make sure that they are reliable. However, banks cannot obtain these guarantees from the state because the state doesn’t want to interfere in your freedom, and they don’t want them from other private companies because they know that they are as greedy and untrustworthy as they are themselves, notably because they have all engaged in never-ending chains of subcontracting which dilute responsibility. The only way they found to get this insurance is by requiring endless piles of paperwork from you. More economic freedom, more paperwork, more soul-sucking bureaucracy.

Freer Markets, More Rules

Think of the following analogy: one day, you decide to no longer accompany your small son or daughter to school to leave them more freedom. However, to make sure that they won’t talk to strangers (which they might do) you make them fill in a 50-page questionnaire every day asking them if they understand all the different kinds of risks they may be exposed to, you call them every 30 seconds to check that they’re alright, you hire a private eye to check on them along the way, and another to monitor the first private eye. My understanding is that the British political economy works a bit along these lines. Governments have privatized, liberalized and outsourced, but every time they’ve done so, they’ve had to set up giant bureaucracies to monitor, control and repair the blunders of the market, and so do private companies to enforce and take advantage of competition. When you have freer markets, you need more rules. Britain and the United States have the most liberal labour and financial markets in advanced countries. Since there is so much freedom, why is there one CCTV for every eleven people living in Britain, and the United States have the largest rates of incarceration in the world? Since the UK doesn’t have ID cards and nobody is required to carry a document of identification to preserve individual freedom, it is actually easier for the police to take you to the policy station to identify who you are. While you seek to free market and individuals, you eventually end up establishing systems of control that are even more intrusive and alienating.

The problem is that when you don’t set up bureaucracies to monitor and control private markets, things usually go wrong, and the state has to step in to repair the damages with new bureaucracies, new commissions of enquiry and new regulatory authorities. Recently, Britain has privatized its probation services, or the monitoring of offenders on parole. It turned out that the company in charge of this had massively overcharged for this service, leading its chairman to step down. Now, you need more bureaucrats to check that the private service providers actually do their job, and more judges to sue them when they commit abuses, sometime dramatic ones. Security services are outsourced, but the army and police had to step in when G4S totally mismanaged the security of the 2012 London Olympics. Railways were privatized, but the company which managed the British Railway tracks had to be partly re-nationalised after a major crash. The British minimum wage is low not to outprice low-skilled workers, but the Treasury pays 3.2 billion a year in tax credits for low wages. It seems to be the same story time and again. The more market you have, the more state and bureaucracy you need after all.

Bureaucratization in British Universities

British universities are a particularly dramatic example of market-induced bureaucratisation. Since I have arrived, I discover the existence of a new rule, a new subcommittee or a new fancy job title (usually with word “strategic” in it) more or less everyday. If I go to a conference, I should fill in a risk assessment form listing 68 types of risks that I may face abroad, including whether I could be bitten by venomous snakes. I should also indicate the address of the closest hospital to the conference venue. The interesting thing about a large part of this bureaucracy is that it seems to have been created to respond to the needs of competition, while competition was supposed to make everything more efficient. Universities are in competition in the domain of teaching to attract students – and therefore income from fees – and in the domain of research, as government money is attributed on the basis of their research performance. As to teaching, as universities are desperate to attract as many students as they can, they have invested massively in marketing, recruitment and advertising services. In the US, for-profit universities are already spending more on marketing than in teaching (20% vs 17%, a report showed). Estimates for the UK are about 4 to 5% in marketing, but most experts predict a massive increase in future years. The consequence, in a context where resources do not increase because the total number of students is capped, is less money for what students actually want, teaching, and more to hire administrators and consultants in-house or – more often – hire private marketing firms. In short, the cost of selling the product to customers has gone up, and there is less money to actually produce it; then you need to rely on low pay to produce it with casual labour.

As for research, the major instrument to allocate funding is the Research Excellence Framework, whose goal is to rank and assess the research output of universities. My understanding of the achievements of the REF is that it has primarily created a giant time-consuming bureaucratic machine. Here’s how it works: departments are asked to select the “best” research outputs of their staff, and for that they set up reading committees who read all the publications to rank them. These rankings are then transmitted to higher levels within the university where the ranking is assessed, and decides whether it is reliable (Universities want to predict their REF score, perhaps for future budgeting). If it is not considered reliable, it is sent to external experts who can re-rank and re-assess the publications. At my university, heads of department have had to attend workshops to explain them how to tell their staff if they had been submitted for the ref or not. So what you have is thousands of people spending thousands of hours ranking and marking their colleagues’ work instead of doing more and better research, which was the first goal of the REF. And I don’t even mention the requirement of writing “impact case studies”: University College London advertised three “editorial consultant”  positions to write them. Salaries were roughly equivalent to those of a lecturer.

In all these examples, the logic is similar. You try to enforce economic freedom, competition and free markets, but you end up creating exactly what you oppose because, as Polanyi argued, self-regulating markets simply cannot exist. Margaret Thatcher is often credited for the downfall of Communism, but she may have paved the way for a system that displays disturbing similarities.

Do good universities teach better, or do they just select better students?

Research commissioned by the  Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (and reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement) argues that the wage premium associated with studying at a Russell Group university is not statistically significant if you control for the social background of students and their A-levels. Graduates of Russell Group universities do earn 36% more than non-graduates and 15% more than graduates of former polytechnics. However, differences between Russell Group and non-Russell Group graduates vanish if you control for the profession of their parents and their grades in high school. Put more simply, if you are clever and come from an upper middle-class background, it doesn’t really make a difference if you go to a top or an average university. Now of course, if you are clever and upper-middle class, you are more likely to go to a better-ranked university (and top universities are more likely to want you), but going to a top university per se doesn’t seem to provide any added value. The difference is only due to a selection effect. Going to a good university is correlated with being smart (and having higher incomes throughout one’s lifetime), but it doesn’t make you smarter. Yes, let’s assume that income is an indicator of ability, just for a moment.

Somehow, this echoes old research by Bourdieu and Passeron on the role of education in society. In The Inheritors, they argued that the education system is more an instrument of selection and classification than an instrument of well, education. The educational system is better at legitimizing and reinforcing inequalities derived from socialisation than at compensating for these inequalities, or simply at teaching people things. Students from upper-middle-class backrounds have better grades on average not because they are more clever, but because school positively evaluates abilities that are more prevalent in upper-middle classes, and that are not taught at school. Similarly, employers prefer to hire graduates of higher ranked universities because higher ranked universities have selected the better students, but not necessarily because they provide better education. A degree from a good university is just a way to certify abilities that are acquired outside of university. While marking essays, I have often wondered about this: am I assessing if the student has learnt anything from the course that i have taught, or her general ability to structure an argument which has been acquired out of university? If you take this logic further, you could think that the material that is taught at university (and that students will mostly forget after exam time) is just a pretext for marking and ranking students, because you need to evaluate them on something after all. In contrast to the type of university, grades make quite a big difference for graduate earnings, however.

Now, what is interesting with the results of this study is that even if the education provided doesn’t matter, you would still expect Russel Group Universities to provide a wage premium (independently of the education provided) compared to former polytechnics because of these signalling effects. Even with equal abilities, equal social backgrounds and equal A-level results, graduates of Russell Group universities should still earn more because of the prestige of the brand, but as far as I understand, they don’t. Hence, there is something that offsets this “brand premium”.

There are different possible causes. One possible reason is that the education received at Russell group universities is actually worse than that provided at former polytechnics. It sounds counterintuitive, but there are actually a number of reasons why this could be the case. Research-intensive universities are, well, more focused on research while former polys are more focused on teaching. Time is not extensible, and attracting research money, getting grants and publishing a lot means less time to teach. Research is considered much more important than teaching for prestige and tenure. It is not uncommon for high-flying professors at prestigious universities, who may attract lots of money and prestige which count for rankings, to not teach at all, or very little. A great bulk of the teaching is carried out by graduate students on casual employment contracts, or in the US by a lumpenproletariat of adjunct faculty. In the UK, a third of students considered that their courses were bad value for money, considering what they pay and the actual contact hours they spend with their teachers. Of course, one may argue that universities who are good at research should provide also better teaching because of spillover effects, but this should be reflected in the results, and it isn’t. If great researchers do not teach, there is no reason why these spillover effects should take place. WBAEPHR6SFGY