Friday 14 March 2014

Compettion versus Co-operation

 A friend who is a School Governor circulated the following to his colleagues after in a meeting in January.  He raises some interesting issues, though I wish he'd talked of co-operation rathar than collaboration: sounds less sinister.
Competition versus Collaboration

The Benefits of Competition

1 I, like most school governors, am aware of the frequency that the word “competition”  and the phrase “being competitive” crop up in school governor meetings.   The “framing” (key word !) of the debate leads us to educate  our students for a competitive job market where the better qualified candidate who performs better in the interview (or the selection process generally) gets the job. 

The UK economy needs to be “more competitive”.  It needs to produce goods and services of better quality and at lower price in order to sell in our overseas markets in order to balance our balance of international trade.   No one owes the UK plc a living and it is a hard world out there. We need to raise our game and sharpen our elbows.

The same may be said to apply to schools.  League tables are devised to enable parents (“the consumers”) to compare local schools.   Good schools (high in the league tables) will attract students (“bums on seats”)  and each student brings with him or her a bounty (AWPU or its successor).  Bad schools will either raise their game (i.e. competition driving improvement) or go to the wall.   Parents deserve choice and this justifies the plurality of provision in the English system these days  - community schools, private (so-called “public” schools), voluntary aided schools, academies and free schools.   What a bountiful market in which the consumer can choose!

2.  Does competition have any downsides?  I would argue “yes”. In the case of schools it is possible for one school to become over-subscribed and a neighbouring school to become under-subscribed.
There are awkward “indivisibilities” with  school buildings   - you cannot easily transfer accommodation capacity to a popular school  from a less popular one.  If a school is at its admissions limit you cannot easily slip in another 15 students per year. You cannot easily scale down the size of an “unpopular” school.

In an effort to ensure bums are on seats schools expend time and other resources in “marketing” themselves.   Market demand is fixed (the limited size of the student population) so marketing is necessarily a zero sum game – what my school wins, your school loses – and vice versa.

3 Having reached point 3 I see this memo is in danger of becoming a rambling rant, so I shall try and cut to the chase.  “Competition” can have other undesirable consequences – for example, different nations competing against each other to attract footloose globalised companies to come to them by offering lower and lower taxation of company profits.  Here we have a “race to the bottom”.   Similarly nations might seek to have increasingly more flexible labour markets, meaning worsening conditions of service and remuneration for labour – a second “race to the bottom”.  Both these examples reflect asymmetries in power structures – sovereign nations acting independently have become no match for mighty transnational corporations whilst trade unions have been weakened by changes in the law.  Consequent on these changes are the erosion of the corporate tax base (so that governments have to compensate by, for example, putting up taxation on consumers) and the sharp rise in inequality of income and wealth distribution that has taken place in the last twenty years.

4. We should not forget Tawney's adage; “Freedom for the pike means death for the minnow”.

5.   In 3 above “acting independently” was underlined.  I see a strong argument for nations acting collectively (collaborating) in order to counterbalance the mighty strength of global corporations that would otherwise pay one off against the other.  Nations acted collaboratively at Bretton Woods in 1944 in devising the IMF structure in which world trade successfully expanded 1945 to 1972.   A main rationale for this structure was to avoid the competitive devaluations that had scarred trade relations in the 1930s.

6. What is nearly always left out of the “competition”, “employability” “paying our way as a nation” discussion is any question of what are the limits to economic growth.  In a world of finite resources where the planet is increasingly struggling to act as a sump for the wastes of our growing production, we need to ask “How much is enough?”.  The competitive model is unlikely to give a globally sustainable solution – China, with its high growth of GDP is also the nation with the fastest growing contribution to CO2 emissions.   It is going to take a serious collaborative effort between nations to tackle climate change and leave, for our grandchildren, a world fit to live in – the sort of joint commitment of Bretton Woods.

7.   Clearly there is a place for competition in our world – and also a place for collaboration.  It strikes me at present that these two are “out of kilter” and we need to shift the balance back more to collaboration.  In our meeting in January, in answer to a question, a member  expressed the opinion that collaboration between local secondary schools is less now than a few years ago and this had had deleterious consequences.

Three Afterthoughts:

A . The F1 project in which  our  is entered is a good example of an appropriate balance between competition and collaboration.   The teams compete against each other for the prize on offer.  In putting together their effort the members of a team need to collaborate closely.

B.  Big banks are cheer-leaders for the benefits of competition (the free market model) and in consequence argue for minimal regulation.   However, when it suits them, they will covertly collaborate, as is evidenced by the LIBOR rate fixing scandal.

C. In tackling both the excesses of global capitalism and the challenge of climate change the UK is more likely to make an effective contribution as part of a collaborative European Union effort than on its own. The EU collectively is a big player.  For me this constitutes an argument for continued UK membership of the EU.

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