What Do Universities Produce?
| Peter Lewin |
Naomi Riley’s new book on university tenure is creating a bit of a stir. It is of a kind with a number of similar works reflecting growing unease about the traditional arrangements in academe. One reads frequently about the lack of value for money that students get for persistently rising tuition fees. And a colleague of mine says he thought he was hired to do research and found out he was actually hired to create publications — and these can be drastically different things. (Witness the recent post by Nicolai).
I wonder how these arrangements have survived in the marketplace. Clearly, universities are multi-product firms. Education (for which tuition is paid) is only one of the products. Another is “research.” This is supposedly a public good (in large part — I guess some products of research could be proprietary). So it is reimbursed by the public purse — aka we have a rent-seeking situation with all its dysfunctions, including minimal feedback on product quality. There is no constituency of consumers to speak of. In effect the producers (the researchers) end up judging their own work and setting the standards and (perhaps most importantly) the rules of the game. Put this in motion and you get a system that serves only the players of the game — provides them with formidable isolating mechanisms and protections.
One implication is that the larger the share of revenue accounted for by tuition (as with liberal arts colleges) the higher the quality of teaching should be. And a growing share of tuition dollars should put pressure on these isolation mechanisms. Of course, where this tuition is paid mainly by the state (state schools) this would not be the case.
So, its a bit of a puzzle to me why the liberal arts colleges don’t have a larger market share. Why do the big “research” schools maintain their prestige attraction when they cost so much and produce such low quality teaching? Maybe its a kind of screening effect — the job market rewards students who graduate from prestigious schools so good students tend to go there and the teaching is irrelevant — a network effect.