Sunday, January 17

Making universities independent makes them more productive

Universities are usually under very tight control of the governments, which is a shame and is of a comparatively recent origin. From a historical perspective, universities were independent bodies, privately funded, and having high standards. Ever since we ended up having education, specially tertiary education, as an element of state policy, the universities have become tied to the government purse strings, which frankly sucks.

Recently, the UK announced cuts of up to $500 million. Broadly, this just continues a tradition of poking their noses into something that should be left independent and to their own devices. Why on earth would a government desire to tie up the independence of universities? I dont understand this, but because of this behaviour, quality has dipped, many subjects are no longer taught, core sciences get hammered and generally the universities are a pit. And because of this, the output suffers.

I have seen similar situations in USA, in mainland Europe and of course in India. The case of India is really shameful, between the UGC and the other accrediting institutions, they have stopped the growth of universities. While the funding aspect is important, just see the difference between institutions which are independently managed (IIM’s, ISB, IIT’s etc.) and compare that to where everything is government controlled. Having been inside one of these jails, it's highly surprising that any kind of research emerges. Forget about teaching, which is pathetic anyway. Just think about it. If we had managed to make our universities independent post WWII, we would have had sixty years of more research from two generations, more papers, more patents, more discoveries, more improvement of humankind and advancement of human knowledge from independent universities. So that's the opportunity cost that we are paying for the governments control of the universities. And then we want all to be knowledge societies The shameful thing is that because of this stranglehold, we have missed out on so much productivity. And that’s criminal - to actually kill off so much research which could have helped our lives to become so much better.
Here’s an interesting research paper and its abstract.
We test the hypothesis that universities are more productive when they are both more autonomous and face more competition. Using survey data, we construct indices of university autonomy and competition for both Europe and the United States. We show that there are strong positive correlations between these indices and multiple measures of university output. To obtain causal evidence, we investigate exogenous shocks to US universities' expenditures over three decades. These shocks arise through the political appointment process, which we use to generate instrumental variables. We find that an exogenous increase in a university's expenditure generates more output, measured by either patents or publications, if the university is more autonomous and faces more competition. Exploiting variation over time in the 'stakes' of competitions for US federal research grants, we also find that universities generate more output for a given expenditure when research competitions are high stakes. We draw lessons, arguing that European universities could benefit from a combination of greater autonomy and greater accountability. Greater accountability might come through increased reliance on competitive grants, enhanced competition for students and faculty (promoted by reforms that increase mobility), and yardstick competitions (which often take the form of assessment exercises).

The researchers use the Shanghai and HEEACT rankings of world universities to compare them. Shanghai uses the following metrics:
  • The number of alumni from the university who have won Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, or economics or Field Medals in mathematics (10% of the overall index).
  • The number of faculty of the university who have won Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, or economics or Field Medals in mathematics (20% of the overall index).
  • The annual number of articles authored by faculty of the university that are published in the journals Nature or Science (20% of the overall index).
  • The annual number of articles authored by faculty of the university that are in the Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index (20% of the overall index).
  • The number of Highly Cited Researchers (copyright Thomson ISI, 2008) in the university's faculty in 21 broad subject categories (20% of the overall index).
  • All of the above indicators divided by the number of full-time equivalent faculty (10% of the index).
The HEEACT adds the following metrics to the equation:
  • The number of research publications in the relevant field in the last 11 years (10% weight) and the current year (10% weight).
  • The number of citations to research publications in the relevant field in the last 11 years (20% weight) and last 2 years (10% weight).
  • The number of highly cited papers in the last 11 years (15% weight), the number of articles in 'high-impact' journals in the current year (15% weight), and the H-index for the last 2 years (20% weight)


Quite a simple answer if you look at the correlations. The researchers have also done some regression analysis to confirm what we know. Autonomy, competition and independence from government clutches helps in the productivity of the universities. The overall impact is startling, they produce more patents and publications, and I quote specially for the US universities:
“expenditures are more than twice as productive in states with the most autonomy and competition, compared to states with the least”
The situation in Europe is more complicated, but still there are pockets of good behaviour (Switzerland, Sweden and UK!!!) where more competition and more autonomy are good drivers of university excellence. But will it happen? I doubt it, because the governments in these countries have a stranglehold on this sector of the society, which is a shame really.

The less said about ME universities the better. While I was closing this, I came across this Memri report. Pretty interesting what the top said:
In TV Debate on Arab Universities, Arab Students' Union Head Ahmad Al-Shater Says Western Universities Are 'Laboratories for Weapons... Who Created Swine Flu, Bird Flu, & the Financial Crisis?'; Jordanian Professor Adib Al-Zu'bi Says Arab Countries 'Imported All the Prostitutes [After the U.S.S.R. Fell]... Scientists Imported by Israel & the U.S'
I wouldn't even repeat what the student said, but the professor was quite right in many ways. I loved this bit:
There is a well-known example from an Arab country, which goes like this... A teacher asked: Who can give me the name of a creature that flies? One student said: A cow. The teacher said: You idiot, cows don't fly. Whose son are you? The boy said: I'm the son of so-and-so, who's a colonel in the army. So the teacher said: Cows fly, but they don't rise up from the ground. That is the situation."
Again, no exceptions, it's just relative across the world. Here the universities are tied to the government purse strings, in India and the ME, they are tied in even more ways. Forget about publications and research, they can't even teach properly if the foaming of the student above was any example.

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