Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Competition is the Answer for Efficient Education

Written by johnleemk on 5:08:32 am Mar 14, 2007.

If you want someone to do something, you have to create an incentive for him to do it. It is impossible to coerce someone into doing something; at best, you can create a very strong incentive for him to do it. If you hold a gun to my head and tell me to give you all my money, you technically aren't coercing me; you're just creating an impossibly strong incentive for me to do as you tell me to.

With this in mind, it seems apt to ponder why education is such a notoriously inefficient enterprise. Most schools in any civilised country of the world are run by the government, not by competing firms — and it appears that therein the problem lies.

After all, what incentive do individual headmasters have to improve the quality of their schools? Often not much. The best they can hope for is a promotion, and becoming some functionary of the education department, or maybe a small pay rise.

And what incentives do the teachers have? Again, not much. They can hope for a slight promotion, or maybe a salary increase, but aside from that, not much.

Neither are there negative incentives if they don't perform. Firing civil servants is a notoriously tricky task in any country, but firing teachers even more so. Teachers' unions appear to be incredibly powerful wherever you go.

Schools are also treated (in general) equally by the government, and are all allocated roughly equivalent levels of funding. Hence, schools that experiment with a superior pedagogical system will not be rewarded for their efforts — an actual disincentive to innovate.

With all this lack of competition going on, the question isn't why are our schools doing so badly, but rather why are our schools doing so well. Why are they capable of producing so many able and intelligent people when they have virtually no incentive to do this?

It turns out that in many such cases, it's just a fluke of statistics; even the worst system can produce a few good people for every million students put through it. (Even in Nazi Germany, a few teenagers were insufficiently brainwashed and ended up starting the failed White Rose movement to overthrow Hitler.)

Worse still, in many other cases, it's a fluke of birth; if you are born into a rich family (e.g. the Gates family) that can afford one of the rare private schools, you gain access to an education from schools that are far more likely to innovate and reward efficiency.

The lessons to be learnt from privatised education are quite clear for all to see. Look at higher education, for example. The world's top-ranked universities are almost completely concentrated in the United States; there are a few exceptions (the most notable ones being Cambridge and Oxford), but otherwise, the names you associate with academic calibre are Harvard, Yale and Princeton, not the University of Hamburg or the École Polytechnique.

What stands out about the American system of higher education? It's very privatised — much more so than that of any other country. The competitive nature of the free market has winnowed the wheat from the chaff, and the results are there for all to see.

Some might argue that private education is unfair because it's expensive. But you do not need the government to run the education system in order for things to be cheap. (In fact, in many cases in the US, it can be cheaper to attend a private university than a public one because of the financial aid available.)

The leading proposal to create competitiveness in our education systems is that of school vouchers. It hasn't gained much ground outside America, and even there, it's a very controversial idea. But after thinking about it, I am quite persuaded of its merits, and will discuss them in a future article.

Even if vouchers aren't the best solution out there, though, a solution has to be found. The schools of today are virtually the same as schools yesterday; there has been almost no innovation in educational philosophy or methods of pedagogy. Schools are just as boring and just as inefficient today as they were in the time of Albert Einstein or Mark Twain (two men who often have anti-traditional-education quotes attributed to them).

I don't think there's nothing left to be changed in how we educate ourselves. I don't think we're anywhere close to the most efficient point possible when it comes to how we learn and teach each other. I blame our lack of progress on our bureaucratic and Soviet-esque way of running our educational systems. If we can find a way to insert competitiveness into the equation, without harming the availability of education, I think we'll find that there's a lot more to be improved. And when that happens, countless future generations will thank us for saving them from the dreaded horror that is the way we learn and teach today.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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