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8:12pm on Friday, 24th September, 2010:

Gaming the System


We were asked by the Vice Chancellor at the university yesterday to come up with novel ideas to make money.


We were told that we can't increase home undergraduate numbers because the government has capped how many new students we can take. Actually, though, that's false: it's not undergraduate numbers that are capped, it's undergraduate student fees. If we didn't charge the students any money, then they could still come.

As it happens, the incremental cost of taking on a new student isn't terribly high. Teaching 15 students on a module isn't all that much different to teaching 30 or 60. There is a cost, of course, so we couldn't take 300 extra students on every module, but we could easily expand by 10% or 20%.

OK, then, so let's take extra students and not charge them anything. That gets round the government cap. However, it doesn't make us any money unless we stiff them on accommodation or something.

Aha, but suppose we don't just take any new students: suppose we only take those who have 3 As at A-level. We would get a slew of quality high-undergraduates. Lecturers are always complaining about low student quality; this would raise it. Teaching bright kids is always much better than teaching ones who don't want to learn (even if they're paying).

Furthermore, bright kids don't all stop once they have their undergraduate degree. The way things are these days, for them to distinguish themselves from the thousands of others with a BSc or BA they have to stay on and do an MSc or MA, or even a PhD. If they hadn't paid for their undergraduate degree, they may well be able to afford to do it, too.

So: any student who does an undergraduate degree on a AAA scholarship must sign a contract with the university. The contract says that if they begin a postgraduate degree in the 5 years following their undergraduate degree, it must be at Essex University. Otherwise, thery're liable for a penalty clause of the same order of magnitude as what they would have paid in undergraduate fees.

There isn't a cap on postgraduate numbers, and although we can charge what we like for our masters courses I don't think we'd have to raise the price; basically, the additional cost of teaching someone free for 3 years as an undergraduate on a course that can absorb the numbers is more than made up for by what we'd get if they did a masters course at current fee levels. The only reason to go for a price hike would be if too few of the freebie kids converted to the masters course to cover the overall sum of the marginal costs of teaching them all.

Needless to say, there's no chance Essex would do this; the high-ups aren't gamers. Other universities are facing a large deficit, however, and these could be desperate enough to try it. Given that such universities tend to be at the low end of the reputation scale, though, the question then would be whether AAA students were also desperate enough to try it...

Hey, it could work!

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).