Over on Ramblings and Musings, University of Toronto professor Victor Ivrii is thinking about frivolous fees. His article is prompted by a National Post piece on "Sanctioned sex club events and Israeli Apartheid Week". The National Post article asks:
Why is their money going to support controversial events, such as Israeli Apartheid Week or the “Epic Sex Club Adventure” recently hosted by the student-funded Sexual Education Centre at the University of Toronto? While the possibility exists to opt-out of student funded groups, critics argue the process is not well advertised and even discouraged.
Professor Ivrii wisely takes no stand on the merits or demerits on Israeli Apartheid or Epic Sex. He argues more generally:
There should be no opt-out process, only opt-in. Unless student specifically indicates his/her willingness to pay a levy for a certain cause, this levy should not be imposed.
The opt-out versus opt-in debate has been well studied by behavioural economists, as described by, for example, Thaler and Sunstein. It's well known that people tend stick with the default option. A "paternalistic libertarian" would require people to opt in to things that are "bad" - put the cookies on the top shelf, for example - and opt out of things that are "good" - say retirement savings. So the opt-in versus opt-out debate really turns on the intrinsic worth of Epic Sex Club Adventures or Israeli Apartheid Week, and - like Professor Ivrii - I would avoid such a debate at all costs!
A more interesting question this: why should opt out (or opt in) options apply only to University of Toronto's 25 cent levies for the Sexual Education & Peer Counseling Centre, Health Initiatives in Developing Countries and BikeShare? Let's talk serious money. Why not let students opt into supporting, say, the university library? The university president's office? The time professors spend in research? Why not let student choose which professors should receive their tuition fees - and allow students to withhold support from abysmal teachers?
The questions are purely rhetorical. There are half a dozen (o.k., three) arguments against such a scheme.
First, an opt in scheme allows students to free ride. The university president's office, for example, benefits all students on campus, by providing leadership, vision, and competent management. There is no way to prevent students who choose not to pay from from benefiting from the president's leadership. Hence each student has a temptation to avoid the costs of financing the president's office, and still enjoy the benefits. Compulsory fees prevent this.
The logic behind the free rider argument is sound as long as the benefits students receive from, say, an administrative office outweigh the costs. This begs the question: how much benefit do students actually receive from various activities on campus?
A second argument against opt in or opt out is that students may not truly appreciate the benefits they receive from, say, academic research. A professor's research makes her a better teacher, by keeping her up to date with the latest developments in their field. Moreover, giving professors time to conduct research allows universities to attract the best and brightest faculty members. Again, the logic behind the argument is sound, but where's the evidence that students actually benefit from professorial research, or that the brightest faculty members are the best teachers?
A third argument against opt in or opt out is that many of the services universities provide have an insurance-type element, such as peer tutoring, academic success or counselling services. If students were allowed to opt in to supporting such services, only those who anticipated they were likely to need, say, peer tutoring would sign up. The financial base for these services would shrink, the demand would stay strong, hence the cost per person would rise and rise - until it reached a point that the services were no longer financially sustainable.
This is a standard adverse selection argument. The best response to it is to dispute the argument's basic premise, that something like counselling should be funded on an insurance model. Why not simply require those who use counselling services to pay for them directly?
I don't wish for universities to be financed on an opt-in basis. What I wish for is this: that Professor Ivrii and his colleagues look each other in the eyes and ask "Are my students getting the best possible undergraduate education?" Two recent reports, by Ian Clark, David Trick and Richard van Loon and by Don Drummond have argued that Ontario universities could, and should, do much better.
It's easy to get worked up about frivilous fees. But the people who are seriously ripping off undergraduate students aren't the well-intentioned souls at OPIRG.* They're the well-placed campus rent-seekers - the budget maximizing bureacrats, and those professors who collect large salaries, and devote little or no time or effort to ensuring their students get a good quality education.
*OPIRG = Ontario Public Interest Research Group.