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January 31, 2008



Be careful what you wish for here. Try this, a Dept of Education commissioned report which estimates production functions for higher education. The existence of economies of scale and scope would be important to determine the optimal means if HE is to be expanded signficantly:


Plenty of discussion of the technicalities of estimating such functions. But then look at the fine print. The teaching output measure is some crude quality indicator with degree classifications relative to A'level scores. The research output measure is in terms of research funding raised - yes, an output measured by an input! 3rd stream/knowledge transfer estimated by other services income (possibly least problematic of the 3). If you were being harsh - as I'm inclined to be - no matter how sophisticated the econometrics it's garbage in garbage out.

The research indicator here is particularly worrisome. Back in the late 80s came the big push to concentrate research on big institutions, even though evidence at the time that this was effective was pretty scant (see Jennifer Platt, 'Research Policy in British Higher Education and its Sociological Assumptions', Sociology 1988 22: 513-529. Apologies, probably need academic library to access it; it isn't sociological theory incidentally). Having done this measuring research output in terms of funding input would appear to give economies of scale but probably just reflects funding bodies' policy.

BTW, you don't even need Sraffian stuff here (powerful though it is); aggregation issues with production functions are a nightmare that analysts usually ignore.

Bob B

As mentioned before, the London Borough of Sutton is (again) top of local education authorities league table for England based on average candidate attainment in last summer's GCSE exams:

As for ranking LEAs in England by spending on education per pupil, try this:

There's evidently not much correlation between spending and outcomes but then you'd expect LEAs with a record of low achieving to spend more in the (perhaps misguided) belief of improving attainment. Sutton's secret recipe is that it has a cluster of outstanding, maintained (meaning, non fee-paying) selective schools.

Mark Harrison

I'm willing to believe that the number of schools in the UK is high enough to give statistical validity to a production function.

I'm afraid I have NO IDEA how many prisons we have, not even the order of magnitude, but given the number of people I know who have even been to prison (two), I have to assume that it's several orders of magnitude lower than the number of schools.

My concern about production functions on small sample sizes is, of course, confidence (in the statistical sense, not the vernacular sense.)

Luis Enrique

Can't a prison production function include an 'external' variable like spending on education?


We really should worry about a school system that results in an intelligent chap believing that a heap of correlations will naturally explain causation.

Mark Harrison


Scientists worry about WHY things work.

Engineers worry about making things work reliably, even if they don't understand why.

This is why we trust engineers to design bridges, cars, office blocks, planes, and all the other things that could kill us if they failed.

I think we should worry about a school system that relates in a huge bunch of politicians being prepared to ignore heaps of correlations all pointing in the same direction, because either (A) their ideology of (B) their belief of their potential voters' ideologies point in a different direction.

[Not intended to "disrespect Scientists" in any way - their skills are equally needed.]

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