This post is very provocative. It may or may not have relevance to the readers of this blog, because so much of it refers to a British context and pertains to higher education. But what is relevant is the discussion of the conflict between democracy and free market efficiency.

As I read it, I thought about the argument for mayoral control: “It may mean giving up democracy, but it is more efficient.” Look to Cleveland, Chicago and New York City, and what you see is that democracy has been abolished with no increase in efficiency or effectiveness. What we have instead is one-man control, no-bid contracts, school closings, indifference to the views of constituents, and no improvement in educational quality.

Here is the heart of the matter:

…the nub of the matter is captured by his analogy with democracy — “the worst system except for all the others”. The ‘problem’ with democracy (as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore might have put it) is that it’s inefficient. Much simpler, cheaper and more efficient to have a benevolent dictator (like Mr Lee and his successors). Likewise, our justice system is mightily ‘inefficient’ — all those lawyers, trials, juries, assumption of innocence until proved guilty, etc. Much simpler to be able to lock up baddies on the say-so of a senior policeman.

But in both cases we tolerate the inefficiencies because we value other things more highly: political liberty and freedom of expression in the case of democracy; the belief that a system of justice should be open, impartial and fair in the case of our court system.

Like democracy, public universities are also ‘inefficient’ — often, in my experience, woefully so. And only some of that inefficiency can be defended in terms of academic freedoms; much of it is down to the way university culture has evolved, the expectations of academic staff, poor management (rather than enlightened administration), and so on — things that could be fixed without undermining the really important values embodied by the idea of a university. The advent of serious tuition fees in English universities will have the effect of highlighting some of the more egregious deficiencies — poor (or at best uneven) teaching quality, little pastoral care, archaic pedagogical methods, etc. But any attempt to remedy these problems is likely to be seen as interference with cherished academic freedoms, and resisted accordingly. Already, however, students are beginning to ask questions: why, for example, should they pay £9,000 a year for crowded lectures, ‘tutorial groups’ of 50 or more, zero pastoral care and — in some cases — lousy social facilities? Why should complaints about the crass incompetence of a particular lecturer be ignored by the Head of his department? (These are gripes I’ve heard from students recently, though not at my university.)

The problem isn’t helped by the crass insensitivity of many of the new ‘managers’ in UK universities — people who may know how to run a business but haven’t the faintest idea of how to run a university. There’s no reason in principle, though, why one cannot have universities that, on the one hand, function as liberal, critical institutions which cherish and protect freedom of thought and inquiry while at the same time providing excellent ‘customer service’ to their paying students.