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Post-secondary budget cuts won’t have the UCP’s desired effect

By: Junaid Jahangir

One of the essential principles of economics we teach our students is that people respond to incentives. It seems like a self-explanatory principle but it is one of the more difficult ones to grasp, as you don’t often get what you expect. 

And this principle is what came to mind when Alberta’s United Conservative Government announced performance-based post-secondary funding. 

To explain this principle, I usually borrow an example from Levitt and Dubner’s popular blog Freakonomics. It references Dr. Vikas Mehrotra, who taught me corporate finance about 20 years ago at the University of Alberta.  

Mehrotra alludes to British India where an English officer offered money to locals to get rid of the cobra population. In response to this incentive, people started farming cobra snakes. The British officer got the exact opposite of what he had wanted. 

Another example, and perhaps more pertinent in Alberta’s case, is the scheme from the U.S. when they released information on the performance of medical doctors and surgeons. The idea was that better information would enable patients to make better decisions and offer incentives to medical practitioners to be better. 

But as a consequence of this performance-based rating public information, medical practitioners were incentivized to avoid patients who really needed care to boost their ratings. In essence, instead of helping the most deserving patients, the scheme put them at risk of not having access to quality care. 

All these examples come to my mind as I reflect on the government scheme on tying post-secondary funding to performance based measures. According to the Advanced Education Minister, the performance-based indicators include “graduation and completion rates, graduate employment, experiential learning, enrolment both domestic and international, commercialization of [intellectual property], research capacity, quality of teaching and student experience and student satisfaction.”

Now imagine how individuals and institutions will respond to such incentives. Everything worthwhile from instilling imagination and curiosity to instigating original and critical thinking will be sidelined in pursuit of easily measurable performance criteria. 

Based on academic literature, there is no single criterion of effective instruction. If anything the corporatization of universities would be further cemented through even easier expectations and higher grade inflation. Many more will graduate with higher grades and will find it incredibly hard to secure the limited number of jobs that are increasingly being rendered obsolete through automation. 

 More research output will be published even if it adds naught to the knowledge base, as is already the case with the umpteen journal articles that seldom anyone outside the specific field benefit from. Instructors will be further reduced to stand-up comedians and students will penalize effective instructors who uphold rigorous academic standards, as that infringes on their satisfaction and enjoyable experience. 

In a nutshell, far from creating thinkers and problem-solvers, we will be further reducing the sacredness of learning to the pursuit of hollow goals that benefit neither the individual nor the society in the long run. Indeed, you don’t often get what you expect.   

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