So Universities Are Not… The Probable Shape of the Future

I’ve now foisted five posts upon you about how the current economics of the university in England make no flipping sense and explain some of the problems the sector is currently experiencing. In this last one of the series (barring a possible response to myself I’m brewing over), I want to try and delineate where I think things have to go if nothing is done. This involves taking a step backwards as well as trying to look forwards.

A long long time ago – I can still remember – how the university used to be funded. Students got grants for their maintenance and their fees were paid by their Local Education Authority. I don’t know where that budget came from, whether local or national, but it was paid at county, district or city level. External funding was obtainable, but there were block grants to support both research and teaching, the support which became the modern QR funding. Cost to the actual student was potentially nil. I came out of my undergraduate education about £1500 in debt, almost all of which I had spent on music, out of my M.Phil. about the same (this time on childcare) and out of my Ph.D. down by about 4 grand all told, mostly overdraft and personal debt and paid back, out of my own wages, over the next two years. It’s not like that now. Of course, there were also fewer universities then and I don’t think that anyone except the National Union of Students thinks we can go back to that; whatever the failures of the student loan system to lift that expenditure off Westminster (all slightly horrifying links, those), it was adopted because Westminster no longer thought it could afford the student grant.1 I can’t imagine any travel backwards in that direction in our current political climate; although Jeremy Corbyn promised it and Sir Keir Starmer has so far held to that promise, his chance to act on it doesn’t look to be coming any time soon. So where are we going instead?

Any answer to this must admit that, while the government may be wrong about what the university is, their policies make it fairly clear what they think it should be, which is employment training, and especially in obviously remunerative disciplines like engineering, applied sciences and medicine (the ‘STEM’ subjects, which they will subsidise when they will subsidise nothing else). As part of that trend we have seen not just the increased powers given to the Office for Students – which it still hasn’t really ever used, just turned into a still greater burden of data collection – and the occasional mutterings about restoring vocational colleges and polytechnics, apparently oblivious to the fact that we do actually have a Further Education sector too and that it also is in repeated throes of industrial action due to staff wage cuts and cruel management practice. But however badly it is provided for, we can see what it is that they want: employment-ready workers in the areas the country stands to make the most money from, and not much else. And that does not require a fully-fledged university sector to deliver.

Some parts of the government may also think of universities as centres of innovation, but until the fall of Special Agent Dominic Cummings the plan seemed to be to try and place any such support of innovation in a new central state research centre, a kind of UK DARPA (the USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and not in universities. There was never a clear promise of extra money for the Research Councils that administer most UK research funding, and indeed at one point threatened budget cuts (in the end postponed, but not reprieved) had them firing staff from ongoing projects as their budget disappeared. Neither was that new: I remember myself when the government withdrew funding for the Arts and Humanities Data Service, the digital archive into which all projects funded by the erstwhile Arts and Humanities Research Board for the previous few years had had to deposit their digital production so that it would never be lost. That was while I was doing my Ph. D., which I started with that deposit requirement and finished without it, because there was no longer a repository into which to deposit. The archaeology section was saved by JISC and the University of York and everything else went into an archive which for some reason Kings College London maintain (see the AHDS link previously), to what benefit to them I can’t imagine. That’s what state-funded research planning looks like in the UK. So the central projects agency always seemed an odd choice for a Conservative administration, compared to trying to encourage the private sector to do it instead, and now the pandemic has wiped away all memories of Boris Johnson’s promises to increase the country’s R&D spend, it seems much more likely that what is going to happen is the worst of both worlds; innovation will be looked for in the private sector, there will be no R without associated D and universities will be expected to find their own money from external bodies, ideally not the UK’s, which are being shrunk, but Europe’s, to whose research competitions we have now been allowed to continue applying, but only after a year of hiatus. So universities can get on with what they can still manage like that but fundamentally, it seems that if the state is to pay for research it is going to concentrate on research with a quick economic return, which it may try and manage centrally or may hope to get done by industry. And universities don’t need to form part of this plan either, though they will need to try in order to retain their reputations, and will therefore probably do it without cost to the government, a win-win for Westminster.

There is, admittedly, some political recognition that our universities are internationally prestigious and contribute to local and national economies, both because of employment and also because of graduates who often stay in the universities’ areas and earn money for a while after graduation. But I don’t think it’s clear to such persons why vocational colleges wouldn’t have the same effect on the economy, or that the most prestigious universities wouldn’t be able to carry on on the basis of their prestige by recruiting internationally. And that may not even be wrong. But it doesn’t look like a university sector staying at its current size. It looks, rather, like Oxbridge and a few other really big hitters managing to stay afloat, even affluent, on international fees and research grants, albeit in all except Oxbridge’s case probably minus a few low-return departments and subjects, and most of the rest either transitioning into FE colleges with degree-awarding powers (and thus driving real FE colleges out of business) or going to the wall. Research in engineering, medicine and industrial subjects will be funded through companies who produce the results of that research; research in anything else will occasionally be funded by grants and mostly be a matter of amateur curiosity. Medieval history will, I forecast, not do well in this prospective era.2

So is there an alternative? I would love to think that it is the NUS’s fully free higher education, but I don’t see, as the Western sun begins to sink towards the horizon, where the money’s coming from for that; the Occident can only snobbily starve the rest of the world of international recognition for its university provision for so long, and even that only protects revenue, it doesn’t grow it.3 Otherwise, I have to admit, it doesn’t look good. These posts have pointed at some of the problems with the current system, and some of those contain within them the seeds of solutions. Why, for example, is a graduate tax – which is effectively what student loans repayments have become, except less progressive than a planned tax might have been – why is that tax levied on the employee rather than the employer, or on both like pensions? (Not that pensions are a good model for survivable strategies just now…) Could a universities chest not be funded by levies on those who want to employ graduates?4 This would also shrink the university sector, no doubt, as employers decided that actually maybe this job or that job didn’t actually require graduate employees, but it might once again differentiate the functions of Higher and Further Education. Likewise, we could cease allowing publication of someone’s work for profit without paying them. If that means ending incentives based on publication, well, that’s the price of keeping the show on the road, albeit again probably a smaller show.

But these are only patches. They might not be enough and even if they were, the political will to adopt them—a tax on business for employing people? What are you trying to do to the economy?—isn’t there. And it’s not all that’s needed. There also needs to be adequate National Health Service welfare provision to which universities can outsource the deepest of their student support and mental health needs (and should, too, because of their vested interest in keeping the students at university and paying fees whatever their state). There need to be reforms to the school system, carried out in conjunction with academic advice from universities about what that should mean a curriculum looks like. These would let schools and HE + FE actually join up and represent coherent developmental pathways towards individual futures (a bit like the system they have in the Netherlands but maybe a bit less deterministic?). But each one of these things is a huge and expensive project to deliver a future far beyond the term of any elected government. It would require our politicians to invest in the future of the country, not the present.

So I’ve been on strike and I will be on strike again, because I think the current situation is unfair and unsustainable, but I’m not surprised that that failed. Escalation will now be the only choice for both sides, sides that could, however, be working for the same goals if they all wanted. I believe that UCU offered a workable solution to the pensions situation, as the pension scheme itself agreed, but Universities UK unanimously rejected it. This could actually be solved without serious cost, if university leaders actually wanted to solve it. The gender pay gap, admittedly, is not so simple because of equalities legislation (ironically), but there are ways to solve it which don’t have to cost anything overall; universities’ human resources departments just need to sit down and plan it out.

Solving casualisation and the declining value of pay, however, both mean making the same money go further, by cancelling either infrastructural stuff or else investment which may each in turn have effects on the university’s income. So, if we get those conditions agreed, we must understand that it will mean fewer jobs overall, albeit those more secure. And if there are fewer of us total, then the workload issue will get worse not better. While the universities’ incomes are so restricted, and the future of them so uncertain, there is no scope to solve all of these problems at once. It’s tempting to say that the solution is for all universities to go private and manage their own destinies, but that would surely only increase the marketisation of the university and its formation as business, deprioritise all non-remunerative activity still further and probably still not pay for anything but a rather smaller sector. But we really can’t do more with less any longer. The available solutions all seem to involve fewer doing the same or less, but with more. But with that, and the associated dim hopes for improvement on at least some fronts, I shall leave it. I would, of course, be very interested in your comments on any and all of these posts, not least because in many places I’d quite like to be wrong! In the meantime, this has been useful in sharpening my thinking and I think I have one more, short piece I could write, addressed to the politicians (refusing to get) involved. But I may see if anyone wants to put that somewhere it will be more widely seen first…


1. You can see the government’s own assessment of the problems, but also of the money to be clawed back from passing those problems on rather than solving them, in The sale of student loans by Amyas Morse, HC 1385 (London 2018), online here.

2. Though it’s always salutary and encouraging to remember that once, giants walked the earth and told politicians exactly why they needed medieval history: see Jeevan Vasagar and Rebecca Smithers, “Will Charles Clarke have his place in history?” in The Guardian 10 May 2003, UK news, online here.

3. Obviously, I don’t really have a platform from which to say such things, being on the happy side of it; but Race MoChridhe, “Linguistic equity as open access: Internationalizing the language of scholarly communication” in Journal of Academic Librarianship Vol. 45 (Amsterdam 2019), pp. 423–427, DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2019.02.006 and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Decolonising the Mind” in Diogenes Vol. 46 (New York City NY 1998), pp. 101–104, DOI: 10.1177/039219219804618409, kind of do and you can read them instead of me. Some more informed perspectives also in Derek Peterson and Giacomo Macola, “Introduction: Homespun Historiography and the Academic Profession” in eidem, (edd.), Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens OH 2009), pp. 1–28, online here.

4. As noted previously, I was not the first person to think of this idea: see Fairer funding: the case for a graduate levy by Johnny Rich, HEPI Policy Note 10 (Oxford 2018), online here.

32 responses to “So Universities Are Not… The Probable Shape of the Future

  1. Pingback: Universities Are Not… Like Businesses | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. “why is that tax levied on the employee rather than the employer?”: it doesn’t much matter – whoever is nominally taxed the incidence will largely fall on the employee. It’s true that if a government proposed your change the employers would howl but that’s just because most of them don’t understand the idea of incidence either.

    Economics as a discipline doesn’t amount to much but it does have a handful of useful insights to purvey and “incidence” is one of them.

    • Firstly, apologies for the very slow answer here. The week after we came back was pretty hectic and then it transpired that the next week was to be the week before we went out again, so that was also bad. Everyone should have had answers much sooner, sorry.

      But, by way of answer, thankyou, this is interesting. I hadn’t met the concept before and had to go looking for an explainer; this one seems to make sense to me. In that analysis, I’m not sure which case we’re in. UCU thinks it’s the one where, “if workers are essential, the firm will be more likely to pay the cost of the tax and not cut wages,” but that depends very much on more pliable lower-paid workers not being hirable to do the same job, which could happen either by the same casualisation we’re trying to fight or just by hiring from the desperate crowd of would-be academics to replace all or some of the people who leave, on worse terms. I suppose we could be very cynical and see this dispute as set-up for that by establishing the worse terms. But again we see that the university isn’t a business as economists understand them, because the preceding alternative premise of that article is, “If workers are easily replaceable by capital, the firm will be able to cut wages to pay the tax.” Well: what capital would that be, for us? In this respect UCU is not wrong that a university’s capital is its people. The question is how much it matters that it’s us, not someone else. And one fears that the answer is: not a lot…

    • Again, sorry for a slow reply. That is a very well-written piece, and its economics make sense to me, so assuming that its numbers are correct I could believe the argument. Either way, though, it really marks the difference between the UK and US systems. MIT can run at a profit just on its own investments; the UK sector is trying to build on the back of debt. MIT sets its own, huge, fees, but they’re still only about 10% of its much vaster income; the UK sector does not set its own fees, they’re something like a fifth of the cost and they are literally half the sector’s revenue according to UUK. The fact that we do anything that competes with the USA’s R1s is a bit surprising, really, but that certainly doesn’t include profit levels and you can see why just from this. The systems are set up quite differently. Of course, this is to compare a whole country’s university sector with one super-powered US college, but that is kind of what you invited me to do…

    • The former does not surprise me, though the figures are worse than others I’ve seen and are interesting; thankyou. This is the upside of the huge difference in fee size between US and UK, of course. With student debt so much smaller, it is more possible to pay it off. But the article is actually just about the salary premium, not the overall pay-off versus costs. The continuing existence or not of the so-called graduate premium, as I said in the earlier post, is disputed in the UK; but as that post says, I think that counting it in terms of graduate salary is to miss the point. If graduates weren’t good news for the economy, there wouldn’t be all these graduate jobs. It’s just that – perhaps, as you say, because of incidence – that it’s not primarily the actual graduates who see the benefit…

      With the second post, again, it makes sense to me in many of its claims. But once more it shows how the US is different. Despite MIT’s previously-cited whining, in the US tuition fees do actually pay for tuition, and more, and that can be ensured because the colleges set them. The fact that the government then tries to pay for them with loans was always likely to be disastrous once demand of graduate employees began to stratify so that only ‘good’ ones were likely to benefit from it. I think Blair should have seen the same problem coming with his 50% target, I think Willetts did see it having arrived, but actually saying, “we think fewer people in the country should go to university,” is still a difficult thing for any government to do when university education has always hitherto been so clearly linked to social opportunity and mobility and various liberal-humanitarian scales of development. But in the US, because fees exceed costs and they are paid by someone other than the price-setter, the colleges profit and the someone else is losing out badly (both government and most students). In the UK, because fees do not exceed costs and the body paying also limits the prices, actually no-one can profit directly, unless the gradute premium still exists. The unmeasurable social good may happen anyway, of course. Once again, therefore, if you want to look for profit, it has to be sought among graduate employers. In the US the sums are so much huger that there is profit for them and the universities; but everyone else is in increasing trouble.

  3. This short note touches on another problem with universities as a home of research.
    https://www.bmj.com/content/376/bmj.o702

    • I have tried applying to UCLA in the deep and distant past, and got nowhere, but I don’t think that makes me want to try again. Mind you, if as comments suggest it may be a device to house a refugee Ukrainian professor, I wouldn’t want to be in the way either! But I wish they could do so more openly.

  4. “someone else is losing out badly (both government and most students)”

    I have an objection to our adopting American habits, in that it’s almost always only their bad habits we adopt. One good American habit would have phrased your point as “someone else is losing out badly (both taxpayers and most students)”.

    In a way this refers back to the point of incidence. You have to ask yourself “who – actual individuals – are going to have to reduce their consumption because of policy X?” If the answer is “taxpayers” – as it so often is – it doesn’t make sense to refer to them as “government”. Similarly if a government introduces a tax “on corporations” you need to ask whether the incidence will fall on customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders or whomever. Because it won’t fall on an impersonal legal fiction called a corporation – it can’t, corporations don’t eat doughnuts.

  5. Well, that’s a good point, isn’t it? At the moment, in theory, if English tuition fees are raised, the incidence falls on the students, eventually. But actually, as with some aspects of the MIT comparison, it falls on some of the students, because the others, whatever proportion it is, never reach the repayment threshold. And since the paying students are not made to pay for the ones that don’t pay – and why should they be, indeed – the SLC keeps going broke. So the incidence finally falls on the general taxpayer too, as the government has to bail out the SLC again, or else it falls on whatever mug buys the debt book. The US system is supposed to be different from ours; but in this aspect it’s not, it’s just bigger.

  6. This might amuse you: I’ve just stumbled on a discussion of tax incidence in the comments thread here.
    http://markwadsworth.blogspot.com/2022/03/a-contributory-benefit-is-still-benefit.html

  7. Here’s quite a droll piece on incidence.
    https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2022/04/tax-russian-oil.html

    I wonder how Dark Ages/medieval monarchs and other rulers viewed incidence. They presumably didn’t have the word but did they have the concept?

    I read a paragraph recently about Chinese import duties nearly a millennium ago. It seems the Chinese court knew the concept of the Laffer Curve: they cut duties, thereby stimulating trade, and ended up with higher revenue. I gather that one of the medieval Arab sages also discussed the idea. I’d be rather surprised if the classical Greeks didn’t know it.

    But the Laffer curve is easy: how about incidence?

    • You’re actually at the edges of my knowledge here, as you may suspect; I was never taught any economics, classical (in either sense) or otherwise, and have picked up what I have in bits and pieces since then. Thankyou for helping with this, but I don’t know if I have an answer.

      I think it is probably safe to say that there was no widely accessible body of theory on this stuff, or we would not see medieval monarchs doing some of the things they did to raise money or boost trade that they did. (Though it also is possible that we simply mistake their goals and that maximising tax/toll take may not always have been the most important thing). I suspect that there must have been some smart advisors or even rulers in every generation who could reason through possible consequences a step further than usual and were thus doing what we would now think of as economics, but in general I’m not sure that idea was there. Most of what I’ve seen about this has been about the Roman economy, and specifically about whether they understood what debasement of the coinage did to prices – and indeed whether they cared, if they could make the army’s payroll this year that way. It’s from that literature, mainly, that I draw the idea that some did more than others. But it is a game of seeing that someone made a chess move, and reasoning why they might’ve, without really knowing what their plan was, of course.

      • Oh, yes, also, a thing often not appreciated: tax on trade was not a very major part of most state’s revenues, at least if they had others. There just wasn’t enough of it happening where they could tax it. By the twelfth or thirteenth centuries you’re probably looking at a bigger proportion, but because there was no VAT or similar as such, the toll was taken on goods in transit at particular points, especially imports, and on instances of trading, like fees for access to markets. Simple volume of business going up therefore didn’t necessarily increase royal revenue, but it might destabilise things in other ways.

  8. I wonder how Dark Ages/medieval monarchs and other rulers viewed incidence. They presumably didn’t have the word but did they have the concept?

    An afterthought specifically on this, though it may wander. In the eleventh to fourteenth centuries, in many Mediterranean kingdoms but especially in Aragón, there was a tax called monetagium or conservatio monetae in which, basically, the merchant class (which in fourteenth-century Barcelona was also very much the ruling class) paid off the king so that he wouldn’t alter the value of the coinage for a period. The Aragonese kings had it down to every two years at one point. Basically, they were shaking down their own kingdom for protection money. This makes me think that the question about where incidence fell may just not be the right one; the question they seem to have been asking was, ‘can I keep making money fall out of this piggy bank into my coffers?’

    I suppose you could also argue, however, that in incidence terms that’s quite enlightened; it encourages market activity and by design only creams off a surplus which is not required to keep the wider economy running. But I presume it sent prices up and that the kings didn’t care.

    At the other end of the scale you have Roman and Carolingian rulers trying to set maximum prices for stuff in times of inflation or famine and being outraged and bewildered when prices continued to rise. I think they understood why prices went up, though mainly in moral terms (i. e. if people did put prices up, bad people, then consumers had no choice but to pay because of the shortage), but whether the failure of their remedy was down to not really getting supply and demand or just hubris at their own ability to control such things, even stephens really.

  9. Pingback: (Why) Universities Are Not… Giving Way to their Staff | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. Ala-ud-din Muhammed Khalji of course successfully fixed prices……..

    Just another fragment from the secret history of economics.

    That is to say – the one “the actual workers of knowledge” – seem somehow to have universally overlooked. How did that happen?

    • This one, I had to look up – out of my timeframe and my normal geographic range. I can’t really give an opinion on it without knowing anything more about it, but what I can quickly find suggests that we really only know what happened in the city of Delhi, i. e. right under the administration’s nose and that even there it involved quite a lot of people being imprisoned for long periods of time, whom it became politically valuable for Ala-ud-din’s successors to release. I also note that there seems only to be one source, the Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi of Zia-ud-din Barani, writing fifty years later, possibly in exile, under a successor who had not maintained the measures. I am therefore very tempted to suggest that this is an example of the thing al-Tabari did with Khusro II’s tax reforms, i. e. using them as a form of critique that goes ‘you know what they did in the past that was better than what we do now?’. The accuracy of the information used to make that point would then be very secondary to its desired effect. So in short I have reservations, which perhaps better education on the subject would dispel.

      However: if this was in fact tried, and if it in fact then worked, and if it did that further afield than in the markets of the ruler’s own capital where his police force was most concentrated, then one significant difference does seem to be that whereas Diocletian’s and Charlemagne legislated on prices when they were already high, because of shortage, Ala-ud-din is said to have done so in a time of prosperity, perhaps for the easier provisioning of the army or the general duty of a Mughal ruler to provide for his people. By imposing the restrictions at a point when it was fairly easy to do, and backing it up with a pretty draconian enforcement apparatus, he may have made it possible to maintain even when supplies were short, when the social good of it would have been more obvious and the penalties even more justifiable. In 291 or 793, it was probably not to many people’s interest to report a rogue trader who might, despite the prices they charged, be the only source of grain for a month; but in 1500s Delhi it sounds as if people would have been well used to doing that by the time the market swung towards the sellers. If that all happened, anyway…

  11. Thanks

    My main point is the relatively accessible 20th century one. I recall Witting suggesting – on price control – that Diocletian was attempting the impossible (at a talk back in the mid-1970’s). His position seemed to me to assume a kind of metaphysical dogma concerning “The Market”. Like a law of nature or some such. That seems to me incorrect.

    As to the actual facts – well – lets start with coins. I think you point to Tabari on Khusru I (Anushirwan)? It is at least clear that there was a gear change in volume of coin production under K I. Such was even more marked in India with Alauddin. His coin output was colossal – easy to see even today, and Timur commented on it when he took Delhi a century after.

    Its a good while since I read this up – but as I recall – Alauddin was a strange guy in many ways. Not least that he showed no interest in his legacy – he commissioned no history. Marked by extreme authoritarianism on several matters – but still – recall that the Mongols overran China, Afghanistan and Persia surely killing millions. When a Mongol army met Alauddin he reputedly made a pyramid of their heads, and wrote a letter complaining of the insult at being challenged by a mere 40,000 horse. Could be a myth of course – but the fact is Mongols did not take India. And this seems linked to the matter under discussion. Control of prices in the central provinces was part and parcel of keeping up the strength of the army he could field. Perhaps he killed hundreds but saved millions?

    Likewise, and similar to Akbar, he rejected orthodox religion. About the only bit of direct speech attributed to him concerns being instructed by some kind of mulla that he had a duty to oppress his Hindu subjects. His reply: “Why?”

    Prior to about 2000 numismatics was still largely dominated by private coin collectors – all of whom would take it for granted that certain individuals struck a hell of a lot of coin (eg Wang An Shih in China, Alauddin in India). Because their coins are still very very common. A kind of take over by professionals – after 2000 – moved numismatics into the hand of people who often got a different view of of what was what, taken from a selective sample, coins in museum trays.

    So at a time when I felt we vitally needed to look at coining philosophies – the why question – why some guys clearly struck a lot of coin – we find instead the opposite going on – focus on the minutiae of quantifying coin production, alongside doubts about if we can quantify coin issue at all.

    Since you raise Moghul money – Akbar’s policy clearly followed that of Sher Shah Suri – and it seems very clear that Sher Shah held a core doctrine very similar to that of Adam Smith. About 200 years before Adam Smith. But they key point is not that he beat Adam to it – it is that Adam Smith just wrote a book – Sher Shah created an empire. In less time.

    • Sorry, yes, Khusro I. Though for what it’s worth, I subsequently checked Barani’s dates in the Britannica and found that their entry ends with this:

      According to Baranī, the Delhi sultans from Ghiyās̄ al-Dīn Balban (reigned 1266–87) to Fīrūz Shah Tughluq (reigned from 1351) who had followed his guidelines for the good Islamic ruler had prospered, while those who had deviated from those precepts had failed.

      So it is exactly that kind of text, and that should make us think twice about reports in it of great successes by rulers just out of living memory.

      But on the bigger point, as I said to dearieme, it does seem to me that some rulers had a better theorised grip on this than others. I was going to say, in respect of Ala ud-din and Delhi, that if we’d only got information from Antioch and Aachen for them we might think that Diocletian’s and Charlemagne’s edicts on prices worked pretty well too; but then I remembered that Julian II also tried it and our information from Antioch itself, where he then was, suggests that it was a disaster. Of course, there again we have people writing up an emperor known to be disastrous and, worse, pagan, under his immediate and Christian successors, so again we shouldn’t be surprised that the knives come out. But nonetheless I once read an old but interesting conference paper which used this episode to decide that Julian had a basic grasp of economics but not enough of one to realise how his actions would work out. It’s J. Adelson, ‘Economic Theory and Practice in Antioch, 361–363’, in Proceedings, ed. by A. Kindler (presented at the The Patterns of Monetary Development in Phoenicia and Palestine in Antiquity, Tel-Aviv: Schocken Books, 1967), pp. 33–40. That has stuck with me.

      I now find myself in the strange position where, whereas in this blog’s comments I sometimes have to try to lead discussion away from politics and back to the late antique or medieval world, here I find myself wanting to point out that all this history is not at all what the post was about…

  12. JJ > So it is exactly that kind of text, and that should make us think twice about reports in it of great successes by rulers just out of living memory.

    Two comments

    1) In general it is not be a good plan to dismiss the sources merely on the basis that they might be wrong

    2) Its an especially bad plan in this case, since Barni by all accounts was already 30 years old when Alauddin died – so rather clearly dealing with matters within his own living memory

    • But to evident purposes of his own which were not authentic recall, but political polemic! I’m not dismissing the source to say that: I’m saying that if you don’t take into account what it’s doing, you’re effectively leaving off the error bars of your textual analysis.

  13. The shortfalls in objectivity in Barni were discussed in some detail when he was translated in the 19th century, by both Elliot and Dowson. Neither suggested there was any such problems concerning the economic content. Nor have you given any.

    I rely upon my physical copy of the the Elliot translation – though I guess it will be on the web now. However, any way you look at it – it seems odd to rely upon the very brief Encyclopedia Britannica web piece to substantiate your position, since on the web even wiki gives very detailed accounts drawing from late 20th century Indian scholarship here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_reforms_of_Alauddin_Khalji

    and here

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revenue_reforms_of_Alauddin_Khalji#Direct_revenue_collection

    A whole bunch of eminent historians then – and none is doubting the sort of economic account Barni gives.

    My reading of Barni about 30 years back was part of an exercise that led to this paper on Wang Mang here:

    https://www.academia.edu/356703/Wang_Mang

    I based my account of the Han texts. At the end I reviewed half a dozen 20th century studies of Mang, and explained the reasons for believing every one of them was what you call “political polemic!” That text has been read since many thousands of times – nobody yet challenged my conclusion – that Mang’s mortal enemies the Han were more honest than most eminent 20th century professional academics who wrote on him.

    So I fear my message to great swathes of modern academia concerning political polemic, (most definitely including such as Ted Buttrey) – has to be rather brutal – its ‘physician heal thyself’.

    • You swing at Ted so much in these comments, for whatever sin you have in your sights in each one, that I have to wonder if you actually read the article in question, which has nothing to do with political polemic at all and is just a plea not to engage in unfounded mathematics. As to Barani, you’re quite right that I’m no expert there. However, before accepting an argument that rests ultimately on ‘no-one cares to do without this information whatever its quality’, I’d really like some confirmation from another source. But as far as I can see from the Wikipedia entry, whomever you consult from the C20th, Barani’s their only actual information. At that rate, I can accept ‘he was in a position to know’ quite happily as long as we also accept that, for the same reasons that we go cautious with Winston Churchill’s history of World War II, we think twice about what Barani was doing with his knowledge. If there had been no success to those reforms, for the point he wished to make, he would have had to invent it…

  14. I’m afraid I do see Ted’s “we should do nothing” as political polemic. Estimating the size of the money supply is both vital and very difficult. Calculations from dies are obviously risky, but if prudently done are obviously better than nothing.

    Its indeed a long time since I read the papers in question, but I seem to recall François de Callatay since did a good job of answering the doubts raised. Ted’s position on this matter matches his position on a range of other matters (eg on scycee, mentioned earlier) and all of them co-ordinate to lend biased support to a 20th century laissez-faire political position.

    My interest in Alauddin derives objectively and very specifically from his huge coin output, apparently up there with Alexander and Wang an Shih. As to the success of his policies, surely we know from history that he did stop the Mongol invasion, did conquer the majority of Hindu India etc?

    Regarding Churchill, WW II etc – thanks for raising this – its a very interesting comparison. Churchill also instituted price controls of course – here is an extract from a paper issued early in WW II

    “British experience indicates unmistakably that the control of raw materials and food prices alone is insufficient for effective stabilization of the price structure. The problem of controlling prices of non-food consumers’ goods cannot be avoided, nor handled lightly, in any “full war effort” in which price stabilization is an objective. The control of prices of essential raw materials may perhaps be relied upon to keep this sector of the price structure stable so long as resources for consumers’ goods production are plentiful; but once large segments of resources must be diverted from consumption goods production, as is inevitable in total warfare, no such simple
    approach to price stabilization will suffice. Under these conditions effective control of the prices of non-food items in the cost of living requires very strong legislation, vigorous enforcement, and – quite probably – the aid of consumer rationing”

    Barni’s account is very clear about forms of “vigorous enforcement” – that would have been impossible in Britain in 1942. These give his account an internal coherence which also adds to its plausibility. (Its curious Alauddin is so little noticed in Western sources – although it always seemed to me likely that Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ owed ultimately something to these accounts)

    Perhaps I should add that I do my best not to associate myself with any political polemic, and that in my opinion the MMT people (Wray, Hudson, Graeber), with their roots in Keynes and Polanyi, have done even more damage to economic history than such as Buttrey, Bacharach, Bates, Miskimin, Velde, Selgin & Co on the libertarian side.

  15. All very interesting, thankyou. With regard to the success of ‘Ala ud-Din’s policies, I mean strictly in the sense of whether his price controls were in fact observed outside Delhi; it doesn’t seem as if we have that information. There, I agree, not least from what Barani says about the number of people who had to be imprisoned to make it work, he probably did have the necessary tools of enforcement. But on the strength of one source with a point to make, about one city, and a policy which was repealed by successors because so oppressive, is this really a great example of successful pre-industrial price control, or rather an example of how very hard that was to do?

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