Modern Lessons from 18th-Century Scottish Colleges

Last year, Ro had a brief piece about how Germany offers free college, not the “college experience”. The results of free college are arguably underwhelming. But the debate over college isn’t new, but can be found in the writings of Adam Smith. As The Atlantic explains,

While extravagances such as hot tubs, movie theaters, and climbing walls may seem to make this discussion distinctively modern, parts of today’s college-cost dilemma are recognizable, in fact, in an 18th-century debate about how best to finance a university’s operations. It was so important that Adam Smith took time out of analyzing more traditional economic subjects like the corn laws to devote a long section of The Wealth of Nations to it. And with cause: The Scottish universities of the 18th century, much like America’s today, had been quickly becoming the universally acknowledged ticket to social advancement.

Smith, despite accusations of Connery-esque misplaced nationalism, was justly proud of the Scottish system of universities, which ran on a radical (by today’s standards, at least) system in which students paid their professors directly…But by the end of the century, it had five of the most cutting-edge universities in Europe, one of the world’s best medical schools, and a booming professional class from which its southerly neighbor and occupier frequently drew its doctors, lawyers, and professors. It had pioneered the study of English literature as a subject, having perceived that for many of its students, raised speaking Scots or Gaelic, English actually was a foreign language. It offered up world-class Enlightenment philosophes such as David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith, all of whom were at least partially educated in its universities.

Smith noted the differences between the universities of Scotland and Oxford where later attended:

Image result for adam smithIn Scotland, students exercised complete consumer control over with whom they studied and which subjects they deemed relevant. Oxford—and in fact most other European universities—employed a system similar to the way that American universities handle tuition payments today: One tuition payment was made directly to the university, and the university decided how to distribute what came in…Smith points out how [Oxford] often fell short of the Scottish system, where direct payment of fees served as motivation for faculty responsibility. “The endowments of [British] schools and colleges have necessarily diminished more or less the necessity of application in the teachers,” Smith writes in his opening sally against bundling the costs of education. “In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the publick professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” In the the Scottish system, “the salary makes but a part, and frequently but a small part of the emoluments of the teacher, of which the greater part arises from the honoraries or fees of his pupils,” he explains.

What’s wrong with the Oxford (and contemporary universities generally) approach?

Prices are information about what people need and want, so the trouble with bundling together a large number of services on a single bill is that it becomes difficult to tell exactly what one is paying for, or for the people sending out that bill to determine what students in fact want to pay for. In the current American system, such decisions are based on fluctuation in enrollment—a very high-level piece of data that can encompass any number of students’ preferences—but not on the micro-level of whether the students of Texas Tech University, for instance, really wanted a water park instead of more or better Spanish-language instructors.

There are potential problems to the Scottish approach. For example,

evidence has recently pointed to the patent unfairness and sexism of student evaluations of their professors. Many an academic has bemoaned the growing “customer” mentality of their students, and with good reason: It can lead to grade inflation and a subsequent lowering of standards. But as Smith would surely have appreciated, the right incentives could bring 18-year-olds to seek out the highest-quality teachers rather than the most forgiving graders. That’s how it worked in Scotland in the 18th century, where there was a simple way of dealing with the problem that the best professors were not always the easiest fellows: rigorous, frequent, and comprehensive oral and essay examinations, which were administered in lieu of evaluations in individual courses. Students were allowed to select which university services and which university teachers they would pay for, but in the end if they could not pass a university-wide exam, their choice to take the 18th-century equivalent of Rocks for Jocks would have been swiftly punished.

The entire article is interesting. Check it out.