When it comes to higher education, politicians misunderstand incentives

Two news items I caught over the weekend in my desperation to avoid anything obviously Brexit-y:  both about higher education, both showing how politicians and bureaucrats misunderstand incentives.

The first was Damien Hinds’ threat of fines of up to £500,000 if universities continue to hand out more and more first-class degrees. The degree classification system, largely confined to the UK, dates from the end of World War 1, but in its modern form is largely a product of the last thirty or forty years.

Up till then, many degrees were ‘Ordinary’ rather than ‘Honours’: the Ordinary degree is now virtually extinct and Honours (originally signifying a significantly higher level of achievement) has become the default category. Even third-class Honours degrees are now an endangered species, and in many institutions the ‘Desmond’ (2.2) will soon be joining them.

Why has this happened? Look no further than government policy.

Our bizarre student loan system now means that there are no limits to the numbers of domestic students a university can take, which means that weaker institutions (which lose nothing by producing poor-quality graduates, the great fault of the current system), have an incentive to expand by making their courses attractive to weaker students. Growing dependence on no-fee-limit overseas students – often of doubtful provenance – only exacerbates this.

The easiest way to do this is to drop entrance standards, for instance by making lots of unconditional offers to weak applicants.  Despite guff about ‘adding value’ to weaker students, this normally also entails dropping the demands which courses place on these students. Faced by this, even institutions recruiting good-quality students feel obliged to go down the same route.

Higher pass rates and higher grades can be achieved by rewriting course specifications to include more ‘continuous assessment’ and fewer unseen exams, allowing students to drop troublesome options and only have their best six out of eight modules determine degree classification, and automatically rounding up marks near borderlines. Lecturers are also exhorted to ‘use the full range of marks’ at the top end; a mark of 85 in one module pulls up an indifferent mark of 55 in another to give an average 70, over the first class boundary.

Damien Hinds believes he can turn back this tide by threatening institutions with fines. He might be right. He probably won’t be here – Education Secretaries have a short shelf-life – but I would predict now that those involved in this initiative will panic when they see the consequences in student and parent disgruntlement. Particularly so if the reversal of grade inflation means, as it may well do, that particular groups which universities are supposed to prioritise (many ethnic minorities, young people from disadvantaged areas of the country, first-generation HE entrants, overseas students) turn out to be the losers.

The other thing I read was an article in the Sunday Times magazine by an Oxford graduate who admits to writing part-time for an essay mill. In this gob-smacking piece of self-justification, this talented young woman claims that she receives £30 per 100 words for writing other people’s coursework, enabling her to volunteer for an educational charity, where she hopes to garner sufficient experience to enable her to get a job in the non-profit sector, where she desperately wants to work. No doubt she will then pontificate about how wicked capitalism is.

Universities profess to be worried about plagiarism and cheating. They should be, but often their approach is too limp-wristed. Passing off someone’s work as your own in order to gain an advantage in terms of a better degree, which then enables you to get a better job – perhaps in a profession which requires high levels of probity like medicine, research or the law – is clearly fraud in the terms of the 2006 Act.

This was recognized by the QAA in a report a couple of years ago. But their focus was entirely on the essay mills. These outfits just about stay within the law by requiring users to assent to terms and conditions which preclude them from submitting the ghost-written work as their own. Nobody is fooled, of course, but it means it is difficult to prosecute these businesses. The QAA asked the government to tighten up the law, but nothing has been done.

However there have been attempts to dissuade advertising, and last week Damien Hinds challenged PayPal to stop processing payments for essays.

This may have some impact, but what is missing in the QAA approach is a focus on penalizing the student. At the moment there are a range of ‘academic penalties’ imposed by universities in cases of cheating, but most of these amount to a very gentle slap on the wrist. The emphasis instead is on educating students to their responsibilities. The claim is that students are overworked, often confused, some coming from cultures that have different approaches to learning, and so on. This is the student as victim, a refrain heard increasingly often in British universities.

But economists would argue, with Marshall, that there are two blades to every pair of scissors. In the market for ghost-written essays there is a supply and a demand. In combatting an illegitimate business, you need to penalize demanders as well as suppliers. Trying to suppress the supply of essays is one thing, but the authorities need to be tougher on the demand too. We don’t just attack the producers of child pornography (who, like some essay mills, are very difficult to reach as they are based outside the UK) but also those who download it.

Some cases of plagiarism and cheating are not as serious as others, and there is a role for advice, help and a second chance. But knowingly to buy, at some expense, a piece of work which is not your own and submit it for assessment is a conscious, deliberate act which is, to be frank about it, criminal. We shouldn’t excuse it.

Perhaps some jail time would not be an overreaction? That is apparently what they do in China. They may have a different ‘learning culture’ in the People’s Republic, but they do have a clear view on cheating as a crime.

And young people like the Sunday Times ghostwriter, who can’t see why people ‘hop on their high horse’ about aiding and abetting fraud, should grow up.

Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *