“When buyers cannot easily monitor the quality of goods or services that they receive, there is a tendency for some suppliers to substitute poor quality goods or to exercise too little effort, care, or diligence in providing services” (Milgrom and Roberts, Economics Organisation and Management, p 169)
How would you ever know whether you are getting a decent (high quality) university education in New Zealand? The short answer is that you don’t, and you won’t. That’s the long answer too.
Let me explain.
I recently enrolled in Geography 205, a second year course in Geographic Information Systems in the Science Faculty>Geography Department at the University of Canterbury . Halfway through the course now (12 one hour lectures , 5 three hour hour labs and a good 6-8 extra hours a week for 6 weeks reading and struggling with the complex software packages we students are being introduced to) I’d say it is a “good” course. But then I would wouldn’t I ? It “has to be good” to justify my having paid over $1000 for the right to attend lectures and labs and be examined in UC’s Geog 205 .
Really, I know nothing. But neither do you. The difference is that I know that I don’t know….and I’m worried that you don’t know that you don’t know….which is why I am writing this post.
I’ve never taken a Geography course in my life (although I have taken many other courses in other universities – I have a Phd in Economics from Stanford and a BA Hons in Economics from UBC) . Economists would call this type of “good or service” that I am purchasing an experience good: a good or service where a consumer is often ignorant about the quality or price dimensions of what they are buying, and so would always find valuable a little more accurate information . You need to “experience” it to find out whether it is what you want and that it meets your expectations . Your problem is that at decision time , when you buy it , you don’t have that experience! Experience goods are different from search goods , where consumer’s are better informed (by direct observation or cumulated experience) and so relatively indifferent about more or less information about the quality dimensions . Ice cream, cereals, and foodstuffs, cleaning products, bus services , garden tools, domestic air travel, weekly petrol purchases , shoes, clothing etc are (for me) search goods, while vacations, automobile repairs , smartphones, movies, health care services , and higher education are experience goods .
What do shoppers/consumers do when they will probably not have enough “repeat experience” , first hand, to obtain the information they need to be able to evaluate the university courses/prgorammes they purchase? As per the quote from Milgrom and Roberts above, how can a consumer avoid being ripped off in the quality dimension – or even find out after the fact that they have been delivered low quality goods?
The experiences of friends and relatives sometimes plays a role. But is reliance on a cascade of reports of a large number of relatively uninformed friends and relatives much of a solution? For this system to work we really need a few diligent well informed friends/relatives/or who know how to acquire comparative information. Competition is pretty helpful in other industries – lousy mechanics and rude retailers soon go out of business. But when did a NZ University (not a NZ politech) go bust or suffer a corporate takeover ,to be replaced by a new and more innovative university or new and better management? The information provided by the suppliers in university calendars is too sparse (2 sentences or so per course for hundreds of courses) to be useful, and we all know that university PR machines promote and advertise their services with marketing claims that are about as trustworthyy as, well, any other marketing claims. The inconvenient truth is that potential consumers of university education in NZ often cannot obtain comparative information about specific course and programme quality or quantity changes – there are no head to head clinical trials for university courses or course programmes.
But there are other ways of monitoring and assuring quality in University education besides the collective wisdom of the student crowd. The Education Act (1989) 162(4) sets out some relevant parameters (and establishes institutions to monitor that quality) :
.(a) universities have all the following characteristics and other tertiary institutions have 1 or more of those characteristics:
- (i) they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:
- (ii) their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:
- (iii) they meet international standards of research and teaching:
- (iv) they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:
coming up next: “Guardians of the Univers..ity : the institutions of AQA and CUAP ”