Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reinventing the University

By Richard Vedder

Two moderate Democrats, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, wrote an interesting if somewhat naive book in 1992 called Reinventing Government. While they lauded an entrepreneurial spirit which they saw growing in government, (I think it’s overstated) they nevertheless made an excellent point. Government's role is to decide what needs to be done as a society, not necessarily to DO it. Often, the correct thing to do is contract out the actual policy implementation to someone else. They were talking mainly about such things as garbage pickup, highway maintenance, arguably the operation of prisons. In K-12 education, a number of companies made good money offering supplemental, after school enrichment services, or helping students prepare for exams like the SAT and ACT --in a sense, society, and in some cases governments, contracted this work out to competitive private enterprises like Kaplan or Sylvan Learning Centers.

Universities can learn from this lesson. They are already contracting out some food and maintenance services. But maybe, they should contract out all services, including learning. As Bob Zemsky told a group that I also spoke at a while back, maybe adjunct faculty should “corporatize” rather than unionize. They should form companies and sell their services to universities, rather than negotiate one-on-one with universities in an adversarial environment. There will be a company to teach foreign languages, one to teach calculus, etc. Indeed, maybe more than one --3 separate companies competing on the basis of price, quality, and student satisfaction for the right to teach kids elementary economics or psychology. Competition would evolve for the right to provide teaching services. Companies detested by students will make their feelings known and take their business to other companies providing services within the university -- or to other universities, assuming a world with limited barriers to transferring credit.

This would be moving back to mid 18th century ways of doing things. Adam Smith famously complained that the quality of education at Oxford started to decline when the professors stopped having students paying tuition fees to them directly, instead of the university. The university should facilitate and oversee the evolving learning experience of students, but the actual doing of the work probably should be contracted out to a greater extent than at present. This would allow competition and market forces to operate in new ways to revitalize higher education and make it more efficient. Are there limits to this approach? Of course. I am not sure how contracting out Ph.D. instruction would work, and would be slow in trying it, for example. But should we be trying this approach more than we do at the present? Again, of course.

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