Education and Markets

Thursday, 12th January 2017

From Jan. 12, 2017

Florida’s governor with his latest proposals for higher education. Pull quote:

“In business, you are expected to create more efficiencies or more value,” Scott said. “Our institutions need to provide more value to our students by becoming more affordable and helping students graduate in four years so they can save money and get a great job.”

Education. Is. Not. Business. I don’t mean that in some sense that we are special and immune from market forces. Of course not. I mean that both internally and externally higher education does not operate in a market the way other things do. The “products” are unclear. Internally, more often than not, institutions resemble old-style Soviet economies, and so can’t use market forces to set prices, generate efficiencies, identify real incentives, or anything else that makes a market into an organizing force. Externally, the social good of having universally available education is so strong that moving wholly to private institutions does not seem feasible.

So, starting out with “In business” tells me immediately that Scott doesn’t know what he is talking about. No surprise there. It does mean that in the state, and now likely nationally as well, we’re going to see more micromanaging by politically motivated people.

The central metaphor is the market, and the public attitude to universities, very much held by these politicians, is resolutely negative. They know nothing of what happens in universities, and yet overreact to every smear that Breitbart puts out into the world. They reject any careful study that doesn’t fit with their preconceptions.

So no, we’re not a business, and that doesn’t mean that we’re special snowflakes. It means that a better understanding of markets and public life is needed by those in power.

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