Thursday, February 22, 2007

Research vouchers for graduate students

In today’s Toronto Star, Ross Finnie and Alex Usher propose a voucher program to promote quality graduate research. I haven’t formed an opinion yet, but at very least it seems much better than the current system of government-to-institution transfers.

How to expand graduate education in Canada, by Ross Finnie and Alex Usher. Toronto Star (Feb 22):

On the supply side, new money needs to flow in ways that will foster the twin goals of expansion and quality.
Traditional measures, such as increasing government-to-government or government-to-institution transfers, or putting more money into research, would help, but offer limited guarantees that the money will promote expansion of graduate education where we need it most.
An alternative approach would be to attach funding to students directly, varying the amounts with the assessed standing of the student, based on grades, exams and other criteria.
Such a voucher-type system would encourage institutions to improve the quality of their programs as they compete for students, while also giving them the means to expand.
Channelling money through students would incorporate the much-vaunted benefits of the "single-payer" approach that generates efficiencies for our publicly funded health system, while opening up the "market" for graduate education.
In short, an intelligently structured set of transfers to universities based on the number of highly qualified graduate students they enrol would strengthen incentives to offer high-quality postgraduate education. The new resources these transfers brought to institutions would allow expansion of the system precisely where quality was best.
Students, who naturally want to enrol in the best programs they can, would themselves direct the funds toward the higher-quality programs. It is a market-type solution, with market-type efficiencies, though financed entirely with public money.

1 comment:

amphimacer said...

The free market is a wonderful thing, but is not the solution to this problem. There is already a free market in graduate education, "based on grades, exams and other criteria." When I chose to do graduate work in English Lit at the University of Toronto (and that university accepted my application), our mutual decision was based on exactly those criteria. I chose that university because Northrop Frye, among others, taught there, and the reputation of the school was as the finest place to study graduate English in the country. They accepted me as a student because my grades and recommendations and whatever else they looked at seemed good enough, to them, to warrant my being included in the relatively small number of students enrolled. The reputations of schools is open to some question (Maclean's Magazine examines that issue every fall), and grades and exams -- and all the other criteria -- also leave some margin for error, but does this proposal really offer any improvement?

Institutions already compete for students. My daughter chose to study law at Western Ontario rather than at Queen's, when both accepted her. On the other hand, that doesn't really mean one is a better school than the other, only that one seemed to her a better fit for her personality. The suggestion that the university chosen by the best students should get more funding is simply a matter of feeding the rich, since the universities generally acknowledged to be the best are most often of higher quality and standing precisely because they have been better funded, allowing them to hire better faculty, provide better facilities, such as libraries, and provide more and better extras. This makes them more desirable, which attracts the best students, who are often more successful in later life and donate more to their alma maters, and so on and so on. This isn't a solution so much as a recipe for improving the best universities even more, at the expense of their lesser rivals. The elite wants more from the public trough, again, and wants to take it from the hoi polloi. I guess that's not news, though.