Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Poor Performance Rewarded

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, July 18, 2008 | Category: |

Poor research performance is being rewarded, argue researchers at South Africa's top universities according to a recent M&G article. The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

The problem with this article is that the journalist, Primashni Gower, does not pick up on the nuances of the situation at all. Yes, research grants do drive individual university research. Yes, it is in the interests of each individual researcher to gain access to as much research money as possible in order to do decent research. However, if the government, is trying to empower previously black universities and former technikons then it will have to redistribute resources away from the universities with the top professors and researchers (which are generally previously white universities) and channel these resources to the disadvantaged universities. might this make sense? First of all, one of the proposals that I would make were I defending this is that the top research universities have much higher capabilities to get funding from elsewhere. If we were to evaluate this properly we would look not only at the research funding provided by government, but the funding provided by private institutions and the money raised by individuals within the universities in order to be able to compare actual levels of funding across universities. We don't see any evidence of this in the article, or even a proposition of such a basis for comparison. Granted, for researchers who are highly qualified spending more time chasing money from other sources is a waste (assuming, for example, that researchers at the 'top' universities have a higher marginal research product than those at the lower ranked universities which I would assume they do by the results). Why is this the case? If I have a higher research output than others, even if I am more efficient than others at recruiting money to my cause, comparative advantage should lead me to spend more time researching (other things equal). But, I need money and I can't just deputize money-making, or at least the university system doesn't allow me to.
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Which leads me to another point. I don't understand why there isn't more marketing for research. Why there aren't more university departments that have non-professors engaged full time in recruiting funding for the professors of their universities. These individuals would be knowledgeable about the portfolios of research of the professors in the department and would spend their time collaborating with the professors in order to obtain more independent funding, passing the info and the propositions on to the professors when the time was right. A professor-private sector liaison for a department if you will. I could definitely see this working in economics and most definitely in the sciences. Introduce more market forces...

Maybe I'm crazy and I have weird ideas about how to change the system. What this would encourage is even more competition between the universities at the top and hopefully make them more and more independent of government funding. At which point they would cease to care about the research grants (actually no, that would never happen, free money from government would never be refused). The crucial factor though is to introduce competition for private money, to make academic departments more efficient and to make finance departments of the various faculties more efficient and effective. Do that and you will hopefully overcome the 'penalty' of not getting rewarded for being a top university in terms of research.

I realise that I haven't engaged fully with this debate in terms of the justifications for the redistribution in the first place, or even discussing why government doesn't channel more funds to universities in order to improve recruiting to science degrees in particular. Surely there are solutions other than complaining about a government that is trying to pull up the previously disadvantaged universities? I know that it sucks for the top universities and that they feel hard done by and that they will argue that there may be efficiency losses in the short (and possibly long) run. There are all kinds of factors involved here and not all of them to do with efficiency, that's the problem with promoting equality, you can never get rid of the equality-efficiency trade-off.

[Aside: I am also quite charmed by ideas proposed in the US (see Paul Romer and Marginal Revolution on this) to channel money to graduate students independent of the universities in order to allow them greater freedom to do novel research rather than be a research peon for a professor. See this site for private sector-individual pairings. ]

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