Good Universities and Bad Economics

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For the next two days, I’m tak­ing part in a pecu­liar­ly British insti­tu­tion (and I’m start­ing to real­ize just how many pecu­liar British insti­tu­tions there are) called “Clear­ing”. This is where Uni­ver­si­ties towards the bot­tom of the sta­tus peck­ing order here in the UK offer places to stu­dents who didn’t get good enough marks to get into Uni­ver­si­ties towards the top of the peck­ing order.

To school stu­dents who want to go to University—and that’s almost every­one these days it seems—the news about your final school mark is one of the most stress­ful and cru­cial moments in their lives. For some it’s good news: they get marks that get into the Uni­ver­si­ty of their choice. For oth­ers, not so good: they miss the cut-off and have to accept a low­er qual­i­ty University—which is where Clear­ing comes in. The pri­ma­ry (but not the only) func­tion of Clear­ing is to allow low­er ranked institutions—such as my own, Kingston Uni­ver­si­ty London—to offer places to stu­dents who missed their first choic­es.

I had my school leav­ing expe­ri­ence over 40 years ago, but I still vivid­ly remem­ber my excite­ment when I got more than enough marks to go to my insti­tu­tion of choice, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sydney—and how my joy was tem­pered by the reac­tions of friends who hadn’t been so lucky. So I can under­stand that stu­dents will feel bad when they find they haven’t didn’t make the cut at “OxBridge”, or oth­er top-rank­ing insti­tu­tions. They think they’re going to get a low­er qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, because they will have to study in a low­er qual­i­ty insti­tu­tion.

Now, as I sit on the oth­er side of the Uni­ver­si­ty process after 25 years as an aca­d­e­m­ic, I’m aware that the sit­u­a­tion isn’t quite as black and white as school stu­dents think it is. There are cer­tain­ly some things that the top insti­tu­tions offer which low­er-ranked once sim­ply can’t: great build­ings and his­to­ry for starters. To walk around Cam­bridge, to see its grand archi­tec­ture, and to feel drenched in its his­to­ry, is an amaz­ing experience—something cap­tured rather nice­ly in the charm­ing UK movie X+Y.

But the qual­i­ty of the edu­ca­tion you get at Uni­ver­si­ty depends very much on the indi­vid­ual peo­ple you are taught by, and here Uni­ver­si­ty rank­ings are far from a per­fect guide. Extreme­ly gift­ed teach­ers and researchers can be at low­er ranked Uni­ver­si­ties, for a mul­ti­tude of rea­sons from per­son­al pref­er­ences to sheer lock-in: a capa­ble per­son can start in a low­er-ranked insti­tu­tion, and find that the “Old Boys Net­work” locks them out of the high­er ranked ones.

In my own field of eco­nom­ics, there is also a para­dox at play: in many ways the top uni­ver­si­ties have become pre­serves of bad eco­nom­ics, both in con­tent and in teach­ing qual­i­ty, while the best edu­ca­tion in eco­nom­ics often comes from the low­er ranked Uni­ver­si­ties.

In fact, there’s a case to be made that the bet­ter the Uni­ver­si­ty is ranked, the worse the edu­ca­tion in eco­nom­ics will be. And before you think I’m just flog­ging my own wares here, con­sid­er what the Amer­i­can Eco­nom­ics Asso­ci­a­tion had to say about the way that eco­nom­ics edu­ca­tion appeared to be head­ed in the USA back in 1991:

The Commission’s fear is that grad­u­ate pro­grams may be turn­ing out a gen­er­a­tion with too many idiots savants, skilled in tech­nique but inno­cent of real eco­nom­ic issues. (“Report of the Com­mis­sion on Grad­u­ate Edu­ca­tion in Eco­nom­ics”, Amer­i­can Eco­nom­ic Asso­ci­a­tion 1991)

The grad­u­ates of 1991 have become the Uni­ver­si­ty lec­tur­ers of today, and thanks to them, the trend the report iden­ti­fied at the grad­u­ate lev­el has trick­led down to under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion at the so-called lead­ing Uni­ver­si­ties.

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About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.