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Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Libraries and Health Spas

A fractured tooth (2 dental visits, with a third next week) and multiple papers on the the robustness of cross-country growth regressions (with more to come) for my development course have so far kept me occupied, plus I've decided to take on more work by auditing an excellent option in game theory. There's also work, as in my day job. No worries. As I try to get back up to speed, let me comment on this New York Times article on amenities at American universities, already commented on by Stephen Karlson and Invisible Adjunct.

Birkbeck, my humble University of London college, is in the process of building an £18.5 million extension to its main building. It should have been finished at the beginning of August, but anyone who has looked at British railways should not place too much faith in British project management. The relocated economics department is currently a construction site without central heating and the extension to the library is still a work-in-progress, with a lot of books still in transit. Still, it looks nice, and it will be better than what we had before, once it's finished.

Part of the project involves a relocated Student's Union on the ground floor. I have no idea what this means, but whatever it means, it does not mean a health spa. British universities, as underfunded as they as are, could never dream of building such facilities. The University of London, like the LSE before it, is thinking of building a central student services centre, with relocated careers and housing offices. The University of London Union (separate from the constituent college student unions) just completed a refurbishment of its 50-year-old gym and swimming pool. That's about it. No artificial ice skating pond for us union members. Not that it matters to the college's core mission.

With the British government doing its best to push students into universities on its own (with an inexplicable and arbitrary target of 50 percent of the relevant age cohort in higher education) there is not much need for the UL colleges to do much of the heavy lifting in attracting students at the margin. Indeed, despite the expense of living in the city, the UL colleges are so attractive that, for example, the London School of Economics did not have clearing this year as Advanced Level results were so high there were no surplus places. A good, rigorous reputation, apparently, is attraction enough, and, while no college wants to be seen as a hellhole, there is no need for them to construct waterslides and 50-person climbing walls to attract students at the margin.

That's what water parks-and-health spas are about. If the discounted capital cost of the new US student centres together with their annual operational costs were divided over theadditional students gained, what would be the marginal cost of acquiring those students? Most of the schools mentioned in the article are state universites, meaning that the construction is taxpayer-subsidised; is this good value for public money? Also, if these schools took their teaching mission seriously, is a student who weights his decision heavily on the standard of the saunas worth having?

Perhaps the multitude of state-supported schools should decide what they want to be (a "core competence", if you will) and concentrate on that. Birkbeck, for instance, concentrates on teaching mature students--those 21 and over when they start--and part-time students. The students have less of a need for the support facilities that other institutions provide. Some are shocked to discover that the college library makes disposals of books it does not need or are never used; then again, while the college boasts several world-class researchers (in economics there's Dennis Snower and John Driffill, to name two) it's primarily a teaching instutution, with it's book holdings adjusted to suit. (Research students and academic staff have borrowing rights at every univerisity library within the Greater London area, so it's not that big a hindrance.) The college is making the most of its limited resources, and for that it should be commended. The college does not appear to be sufffering for students, especially given the chance of most students to work and study simultaneously.

I am not am not a director of "student recruitment" (a form of jargon used in some parts of the UK), but I wonder whether it is a worthwhile investment to attract middle-class students who otherwise would not have chosen to go to university in the first place--the situation in the UK, with the whole process of clearing "surplus" places on courses. (Their subsidy is largely determined by raw student numbers, so universities have an incentive to attract as many school leavers as their crumbling facilities can bear.) Flashy facilities would, in all likelihood, make this situation worse. Could any policymaker standup and be in favour of less students going to university?