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Producer centred or student centred?

When I read The Wealth of Nations for the first time, I liked Adam Smith’s idea that lecturers would respond better to their students if the students directly paid their lecturers. But I wasn’t sure if it could work in the world of modern higher education. Well, it turns out that when Madsen Pirie was a lecturer at Hillsdale College in Michigan, he was indeed – in part – paid according to how well the students thought he did his job. And, as he explains on the ASI Blog, it seemed to work very well.

Of course, the less-radical introduction of tuition fees in Britain is doing wonders. Lecturers who I’ve spoken to say that students are starting to expect more as it is their money that is being wasted. And universities know that American students – who pay much higher fees – will sue if they don’t get what they are paying for. Anyone who cares about the quality of university education should write a thank you note to Tony Blair.

22 comments to Producer centred or student centred?

  • I don’t see what’s particularly troubling about Tuition Fees and the Top Up Fees policy.

    As a student I know for a fact that my university is hideously under-funded (with the exception of the Law departments which in universities I’ve seen, generally do rather well as a result of benefactors from the profession). As much as I understand why a number of my peers chose to march in protest against paying more for their tuition they have to recognize that in order for England to maintain its high standards of further education, for more students more funding is needed.

    Besides, Top-Up fee loans aren’t paid back until the student is actually earning a decent post-graduate sallary. If they decide they want to instead go an work for friends of the earth or whatever and are financially disadvantaged then they don’t have to pay the loan back (at least not until they earn over £16,000 a year).

  • (for the record I didn’t just post a comment in full agreement with the article for the sake of it 🙂 There was a reply before mine although it was removed)

  • Indeed, but it was only two words and didn’t really add to the debate.

  • Rob Read

    I think ALL Benefits should be in the form of loans.

    It makes much more sense to have a welfare state based on loans, and is am acceptable compromise between abolitionists and those who think rewarding-failure with others cash is a good idea.

  • Ann

    This idea of students as consumers and of schools as service providers who actually need to care about their consumers is becoming deeply entrenched in the US, particularly at elite schools. The competition for the best students is becoming fierce, and in order to attract students, schools are going to great lengths: new single-occupant dorm rooms, state of the art athletic facilities, better food and more food options, more entertainment options, high tech gadgetry, etc. Students are also demanding greater course options and more-interesting instruction in the classroom.

    And the old idea of loco parentis? Apart from some decidedly conservative or religious schools, the idea that a school can and should dictate the private behavior of the students is generally laughable. Students demand to be treated as adults, not older teenagers who have to beg to stay out late.

    One side-effect has been increasing pressures for grade-inflation. Though that pressure has been ever-present for decades, students today not only demand great facilities, but high grades as well, regardless of the quality of their work. The last thing a school wants is a reputation for giving out lowish grades which diminish students’ chances of getting into the right grad school or job opportunity.

  • R. C. Dean

    As a student I know for a fact that my university is hideously under-funded

    Underfunded compared to what? Most every person I know feels that they are underfunded. I myself could put some additional funds to good use.

    If your school is like most, it is liberally festooned with tenured deadwood, surplus administrators, sweetheart vendor contracts, and the like. It is probably not so much underfunded as badly run.

  • toolkien

    I think ALL Benefits should be in the form of loans.

    It makes much more sense to have a welfare state based on loans, and is am acceptable compromise between abolitionists and those who think rewarding-failure with others cash is a good idea.

    And where does the loaned money come from? It is little consolation to the person from whom it has been lifted that it might be paid back or not have any control as to the quality use to which it is put (as it would be an unsecured loan, through a double-blind agency arrangement, little demand could be made as to the use of the funds, maybe it would be used to further an agenda disagreeable to the ‘creditor’, and at best would be dictated by the government).

    The notion of connecting people together via debt agreements initiated by the State is very popular here in the US (in effect the social programs are pay as you go and are essentially contingent debt arrangements between generations). The Feds have taken over a goodly portion of the investable credit, and to some extent equity, market to the tune of $6 trillion dollars (soon to be $9+ trillion) with one side of the transaction initiated by the Force of the State. Little seems to have come from it.

    I see very little difference in any structure where coercion is used at any point of the transaction. Further, if loans to third world countries are to be forgiven (and essentially a transfer) how is a student to feel? Sounds like a good starting point to argue for a credit amnesty to me. In fact many programs have been put into place to bring delinquent borrowers back into compliance, usually with some abatement of interest if not principal in some cases.

    Also, once the State gets itself involved in the market all of a sudden you have Stinky Joes School of Alchemy who abuse the system and the ‘pot o gold’ created by the State. Whether it is a direct transfer or a loan to the student, once it is paid as tuition Stinky Joe’s got the money either way.

    As far as it being a compromise, the issue still is the individual who created the surplus is disconnected from how that surplus is disposed of and is left to others. At best the individual might get a reduction in future assessments when the loan is paid back, but by then I’m sure new ‘loans’ will be thought of to which to put the return payments toward.

  • DFenstrate

    about university cost controls- I just graduated from the University of New Hampshire, and if you gave me an hour, I could tell you about five people to fire.

    Firing these people would save the university $300,000 per year in salary, and have no impact on the quality of study.

  • If your school is like most, it is liberally festooned with tenured deadwood, surplus administrators, sweetheart vendor contracts, and the like. It is probably not so much underfunded as badly run.

    Well my university is London Metropolitan University, the amalgam of London Guildhall and London North University. The financial status of both were shaky, more or less forcing the hand of the merger. Without it, it was estimated that London Guildhall simply wouldn’t have made it another 3 years.

    But I can certainly see where you’re coming from concerning the administration. For instance the Law department has had a new building ‘in the works’ for such a long period of time that the student who would have enrolled in the year it was supposed to open would already have graduated by now. There are pictures of ancient standing stones posted in the Law office with the caption “New Law Building” written underneath. (It finally opens next semester)

  • veryretired

    I went to high school and college on scholarships and worked to pay any other expenses. My wife worked her way through her university degree, and my older sons have both been told that the free ride stops at 18.

    My 20 years old is now working his way through a university in another state, which required a years’ wait for residency to kick in and lower the expenses. We help where we can, (co-sign loans, etc.) but the major burden falls on their shoulders.

    My advice is very simple. I tell them, “You are probably going to live and work for another 75 years. If it takes you a few extra semesters to get your degree, so what? Learn how the world really works, and pay your own way. You will be the better for it”.

    We do not raise children. My wife and I raise independent adults who can function in society. And that means knowing how to work for a living. You never have to beg or grovel when you’ve got your own hard earned money in your pocket.

  • Abby

    My observations of US higher education are the exact opposite of yours, Ann. Applications to institutions of higher education have been skyrocketing for years, with no real increase in slots available (it is more and more difficult to earn a living without a degree, and government loans are available to everyone — there is no intelligence requirement). This is why tuition has risen so shockingly since the 90’s — no one complains because most of them are borrowing the money.

    The competition for places is even more intense at state schools because they are much less expensive. It is very much a sellers market and things are only getting worse.

  • Abby

    “And universities know that American students – who pay much higher fees – will sue if they don’t get what they are paying for.”

    I wish this were true!! It is possible to sue a school under a breach of contract theory, but this has been sucessful in only a handful of cases. To win you need to show that the school had explicitly promised something it did not deliver. One cannot sue for a general failure to provide a decent education, or for using a bait-and-switch tactic for tuition increases. (Yes, that’s right, I did research the possibility of suing my school).

    Students do not have anywhere close to the legal rights of consumers in general, and they are typically treated poorly as a result.

  • There is another private way to pay for college that does not involve debt. Find someone to invest in you. See: My Rich Uncle

  • The Wobbly Guy

    How I wish my university had grade inflation! 🙁

    We probably have one of the worst cases of grade deflation in the world. Compared to other universities overseas, our grads have typically lower grades EVEN if they’re actually better intellectually. Case in point: Student exchange programs. No foreigner ever wants to stay longer than they have to, because they get demoralised, while the converse is true. 😛

    And yes, it is effectively run by the government. However, unlike other governments, this one intends on cracking the whip and weeding out the chaff. Sigh.

    Probably a good argument for control from the producer side, provided that the producers are intent on providing a real education instead of just grades. In this case, the consumers will wreck the system.

  • Dave O'Neill

    My wife and I have just paid out £17500 to a university for her MBA – its a top 10 UK school and in the top 100 globally and she passed, now all she needs is a good to take advantage of it – however, I don’t feel I got particularly good value for money.

    If Universities are going to take real cash from customers then they better start behaving like businesses.

    The local University has recently set up a business incubator for supporting the development of university research led technologies and management projects into businesses. It’s utterly useless. They are charging the same rents as the local Regus for less services and offer very little value add for the money.

    By all means move to a more fee orientated system but unless its properly managed we’re going to be wasting money.

  • Tuition fees most certainly impact on the ‘value for money’ factor which motivates students to make the most of their courses and demand the quality of teaching they believe they’re paying for but the current tuition fees system is severely flawed:

    The current system caps the fee at £1,125/year. I personally have around 20 hours of lectures a week for my £1,125 as well as a number of ‘lab sessions’ where I have access to expensive specialist equipment and unique learning opportunities but I know students who have little more than four or five hours of scheduled lectures each week for the same fee – often on humanities courses where lab sessions are not a factor either. It seems fairly obvious that I receive far better value for money than some of my friends. However, this particular issue may be addressed in time with the government’s proposed ‘top-up fees’.

    The major flaw with the current tuition fees system is that whilst I’m paying £1,125/year for my course there are some students being paid anything up to £2,000 or £3,000/year to remain on their courses – they’re often easy to spot because they’re the ones who either don’t attend lectures or who attend lectures with the sole intention of disrupting the session and spoiling it for the paying students. Yes, yes, I know, the only reason they get paid £2,000/year to ruin the lectures I have paid for is because they have ‘problems at home’ or a ‘disadvantaged background’ or they come from a ‘single-parent family’ etc but paying these sorts of students to attend universities and behave in thoroughly disruptive ways achieves nothing more than to make it more difficult for the paying students and genuinely interested students to learn and get ‘value for money’. Interestingly a lot of the students being paid by the government drop out in the first year in any case (but not before they have spent their ‘free money’).

  • A_t

    The only trouble with this approach is, do the students really know what’s best for them? This may sound patronising, but a good friend was recently on an MSc course, for which the majority of people were paying. Their impressions of lecturers seemed to be pretty superficial; they dismissed as “crap”, & refused to pay attention to, a woman who presented herself scruffily but knew her stuff, & meanwhile respected a bullshit talking but well-dressed lecturer. Under “value for money” regime, the bullshit-talker would stay, the scruffy woman go. On the other hand, maybe this particular bunch of students deserve that :).

  • The Wobbly Guy

    The government should have some control over the university to ensure standards, but paying students money is a big no-no, unless the students have practically ensured that they won’t be wasting the money by prior academic excellence.

    I’m taking government money, and there’re strings attached. Of course, I had to fight tooth and nail to get it in the first place… competition is fierce, and I can’t slip up. So why reward mediocrity at all?

    *stares blearily at his chemistry notes*

    I think the problem here is not just about the schools hiring substandard staff. It’s also about the government giving away money too easily. By all means, funding and scholarships should be awarded to high flyers; they’ve proved that they can hack it. But why the rest?

  • Dave O'Neill

    Just providing scholarships and money to high fliers doesn’t necessarily reflect ability to pay.

    I went (for a few years) to a relatively minor public school, but the top set would basically have their pick of Universities – that sort of scheme could be open to all sorts of problems. Perhaps better to have a reward at end system like some German engineering Universities where the top students get their fees paid by the University on completion.

    That evens out issues with “cram” style teaching at entry, and really identifies the good students.

    To put it in perspective. At the school I attended, by the end of the second year we had effectively completed the standard O level sylabus in maths, english, history, geography, French, Latin, Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

    The top set were expected to take some O Levels in the 3rd year, the rest in the 4th Year and in the 5th year take more O levels and usually at least one A level like Maths.

    The 6th form years were then for the rest of your A or S levels and preparation for the Oxbridge entrance exam. A typical Set 1 student would expect 15+ O Levels and 5 A Levels plus a fighting chance at the Oxford/Cambridge slots and if not certainly a top 10 University.

  • Pity the poor souls who paid top dollars to get a Princeton education and are getting Paul Krugman for economics…

  • Sylvain –

    Pity them? No, I shake my head at them. At a 4-year cost of $140,288 for undergraduate tuition and room and board, anyone that has to pay for an education at a place like Princeton is getting ripped off. There are plenty of schools where the quality of professors is just as good and the price is halved. The benefit of paying to go to a place like Princeton isn’t that you get a better education than is possible anywhere else; it’s that you gain entry to contacts usually only available to people who have either earned their way into school or have had it handed to them. Lots of people are willing to pay just to have those contacts, which is fine, but if you’re talking about the education received there are certainly better deals to be found.

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