Students should celebrate lecturer strikes

Starting on Thursday, academics and lecturers at 61 universities represented by the University and College Union will strike for 14 days. According to the Sunday Times, affected universities are planning to dumb down final exams to ensure that the walkouts do not affect final grades. Essentially, it means that students will get to graduate with the same grades but with less material to revise and a few more lie-ins in lieu of morning lectures. This should be cause for celebration for most students, but the ungrateful beggars are complaining.

Students are demanding compensation. The Telegraph reports:

Georgia Davies, a 21-year-old second year English and Modern History student at the University of St Andrews, calculated that 14 days of lost lectures represents £768 of her tuition fees.

“I get 12 hours a week in lectures and tutorials which means that a single hour costs me £32. Consequently 14 days of action is the equivalent to not getting £768 of face-to-face contact with my lecturer,” she said.

“While students support their lecturers in this dispute, they also want to get value for money for the fees they have to pay.”

Are students being cheated? Are they still getting value for money?

It depends on why degrees are valuable in the first place. There are three candidates.

1. Consumption: Attending lectures and seminars is interesting and fulfilling.

2. Human Capital: Education increases skills and makes you a more productive (higher earning) worker

3. Signalling: By studying you prove to employers that you’re intelligent, hard-working, and conform to society’s expectation.

In his new book The Case Against Education, George Mason University Professor Bryan Caplan argues persuasively that the majority of the benefit of a university education comes from signalling: not from increased human capital or consumption value.

Caplan backs up his case with solid statistical evidence. He points out that the human capital theory falls flat. First, he points out that much of what’s learned in school beyond numeracy and literacy isn’t useful in most graduate jobs. Second, that’s probably a good thing given that most students forget most of what they learn as soon as they’ve taken their final exam.

Ben Southwood, formerly of this parish, has previously blogged that moving a kid from a worse to a better school has almost no impact on their life chances. While the IFS found that school absences have no measurable effect on students’ long-run productivity.

The education as consumption angle is also flawed. It’s true that some students do enjoy learning (I was one of them), but that lecture attendance is embarrassingly low (strangely this changes if lecturers take a register) and that many students fail to do the reading ahead of a seminar suggests for many education is a means to an end.

It may seem controversial at first, but most students implicitly accept the signalling model. They look for ‘easy firsts’. They bin their revision notes and sell their textbooks after an exam. They probably think that cheating is wrong, but they almost certainly think that cheats benefit if they can get away with it. Failing an exam carries a much greater cost than passing and then forgetting what you have learnt.

Neither Caplan nor I argue that education is 100% signalling. There are, of course, some human capital benefits and some consumption benefits. But the signalling model has much greater explanatory power than its alternatives.

If Caplan and I are right that higher education is mostly signalling then students should welcome lecturer strikes. Signalling is positional. Being able to get top grades in my Freshman year should be enough to signal that I’m smart, hard-working, and conformist. But if everyone else is doing three years, then I look like a slacker who can’t follow things through and isn’t willing to do what is expected of me. Signalling is effectively an arms race – and like an arms race both sides are worse off from having to engage in it.

By cancelling lectures and forcing universities to dumb down their final exams, striking academics have inadvertently signed an arms treaty. And for students that should be cause for celebration.