Why we really do need to reform the universities


No, really, we do, as this campaign shows:

The UK Campaign for the Public University is open to all. It is a broad-based campaign with no party or other political affiliation. It has been initiated by a group of university teachers and graduate students seeking to defend and promote the idea of the university as a public good.

How very nice of them but they really don't seem to know what a public good is. Their manifesto is here and their list of signed up supporters here.

What they are arguing for is the public funding of the universities rather than funding through student fees. But a public good is not something which is paid for through taxation. Nor is it something provided to the public nor even is it something which would be good for the public to have supplied to it.

A public good is something which is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. That is, it being had or consumed by one person does not deprive another of it and that we cannot stop someone enjoying the good itself. University degrees clearly meet neither of these restrictions and so are not public goods.

It is true that the results of scientific research are public goods: which is why we will still be subsidising the research even if not the undergraduate degrees (that something is a public good is an argument in favour of their tax subsidy, yes, but not an open and shut case that they should be publicly run or entirely publicly paid for). And it's also possibly true that having lots of well educated scientists and engineers is a public good: graduates of womyns' studies courses less so. Which is why there will still be subsidy for certain scientific and engineering degrees, not so for certain others.

So the campaign clearly fails just as it starts: they've got terminally confused between public funding and public goods.

Which leads us to the proof that academia must indeed be reformed. Several hundred of our finest academic minds have just signed up to a campaign which shows that they don't know what they're talking about. Certainly I would argue that this shows that we must reform academia. Perhaps we could just insist that all of them, each and every one, try to read through the undergraduate textbooks that their own students manage each year? The ones from the economics courses, of course?