A fable of Eunuchs, Praetorians, and University funding cuts.

Imagine yourself to be in the mythical Land of Beyond where you need minions to do a dirty job that men with honour would refuse to do. A classic trick in this situation is to pick people despised by the rest of society who are thus dependent on protection and will simply do what is asked for.

The Chinese emperors hit upon this truth when they started to surround themselves with eunuchs, despised by the rest of Chinese society and thus fiercely loyal to their protector, the Emperor. The roman emperors, similarly, made a habit of surrounding themselves with freed slaved who were despised by other Romans, as well as by a dedicated palace guard (the Praetorians) who were the only militia allowed in the vicinity of Rome.

The European colonialists too used this basic ‘dirty dozen’ technique when it came to keeping a large population in check with minimal own presence, particularly in Africa, by elevating some small despised group (ethnic or religious minorities) as the preferred club from whom the senior administrators came. This small favoured group would get personal benefits (riches and influence) but in return they would do whatever the colonizers wanted.

To see the relevance of this for university cuts in the Land of Beyond, you first need to step back a level and imagine yourself to be the Vice Chancellor of a second-rate university that brings in, say, a billion ‘Beyond’ dollars a year out of which some 300 million is money you dont really need to generate that 1 billion. It is ‘potential profit’ if you like.

Now, your first thought will of course be to give as much of this money to yourself as you can. That is not so easy though: in Beyond, universities are non-profit organisations nominally run by senates and full of academics who like to monitor and criticise you. You would never get away with giving yourself multi-million dollar salaries and huge offices if academics are really watching your every step.

So in order to get more of the profit, you need to subdue two groups, the academics and the senate. You subdue the academics by keeping them busy with ‘compliance’ and having a lot of systems in place to punish them if they become pesky. You thus include in your rules that anything that harms the reputation of the university is a sacking offence. You put yourself at the top of the committees that decide on professorial promotions and academic bonuses so that you are their direct boss. You appoint hundreds of administrators to monitor the media, teaching, and student-related activities of the academics with the purpose of keeping them quiet and punishing them when they get out of line.
You subdue the senate by overloading them with information (for which you need again more administrators) and by keeping them happy with luxuries and gifts. Over time, you attempt to get control of the mechanism via which new members get to be in these senates.

Now, the essential problem you face in this as a VC is how to ensure that the people helping you with your take-over plans are somewhat loyal to you rather than to something as silly as the goals of the university or academia or even to the needs of Beyond. It is loyalty to yourself that you need in order to eventually be able to get away with giving yourself huge amounts of money.

You remember your history lessons and realise that what you need is a set of eunuchs: people despised by the academics in your organisation who will thus have the same incentive as you have to subdue the academics and grab as much of the university resources as possible.

What are the equivalent of eunuchs in universities? Why, non-academics of course! Better still, non-academics whom you give academic titles for they will be even more despised! Hence you pick the most efficient bullies you can find, call them all professor and put them in charge of the divisions that subdue the academics and that send mountains of information to the university senate to ensure they will just go along with whatever you happen to ask of them at the end of some sumptuous occasion.

Due to your brilliance and foresight, the trick works like a charm and you find yourself earning well over a million, with several huge offices, and in a position to bargain for even more kick-backs from outsiders who want to use parts of the university for their own end (property developers and the like).

Now imagine yourself in the layer yet higher: you are now an ambitious paymaster in the Capital of Beyond, someone who nurtures a reputation for being able to get things done even if they might not really be in Beyond’s best interests. You too have a control problem for you want all kinds of things from universities. You would like the universities to keep the population happy by churning out cheap degrees to domestics. You also want universities to sell visas to smart oversees students by means of high fees for almost no education (cross-subsidising those domestics). Basically, you want universities to abide by whatever fancy drifts into the head of your current minister.

The control problem you have as a ‘wheeling and dealing’ senior civil servant in Beyond is again those pesky academics: they are self-righteous, not all that interested in your opinion or even your money, and wouldn’t easily go along with these plans. They might well flatly refuse to sell visas to foreigners because they would baulk at short-changing the education given to those foreigners. Indeed, they would probably laugh in your face if you suggested that universities should fall in line with, say, your wish to have a campus in the middle of nowhere just because it is a marginal constituency.

Just imagine what confident academics would do if you told them to cut their budget by 900 million! Why, they might do something as bold and brash as to honestly tell their students that there are no funds to properly educate them. Imagine the political fallout of such honesty by a bunch of self-righteous academics who won’t simply do your bidding! No no, it is quite clear to you that the last people you want leading universities are academics. You want leaders who know what you really mean when you talk about ‘university accountability’, ‘stakeholder management’, ‘strategic visions’ and ‘preparing for the future’.

So the senior Beyond bureaucrat too finds herself in the situation of needing eunuchs in charge of universities. You don’t mind if they get some private benefits out of the arrangement as long as they do your bidding and not rock the boat politically.

Now think a step higher again and consider why Beyond might have fixers at the top of the ministries …..


Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

7 thoughts on “A fable of Eunuchs, Praetorians, and University funding cuts.”

  1. hmmm…much as I enjoy and learn from you, Paul…don’t we economists believe that doctors aren’t best placed to regulate and/or monitor the behavior of other doctors (pick your favorite information dense professional specialist area) for a whole bunch of reasons?

    So how do I read this as saying anything other than (i) the behavior of bureaucrats is difficult to monitor and (ii) special pleading that academics are unique and can be trusted to research and teach in society’s best interests if only they were left alone to do just that?

    oh…and speculation that the inherent inefficiencies might be large relative to the annual flows – but with little in the way of highlighting the real opportunity costs anyway along that path…



    1. the post is a fable, an economic model if you like, describing forces and outcomes in a set of hypothetical circumstances. It is the reader who decides whether the model has some relevance to a situation. ?

      Now, within this toy-model you can indeed ask the question whether a superior constellation, with or without some change to the rules of the game, is imaginable. Within the fable you could for instance insist that academics make up the majority of the senates: not running the universities day-to-day but definitely monitoring those that do. You see, its the academics that have an incentive to care about the long-term reputation and outcome of their universities so even if you dont want them in charge, you certainly want them in monitoring positions. As to relevance today, ask yourself how many real academics you now actually find in the top monitoring bodies within universities……

      The model goes much deeper though than just talking about how to organise the universities. Its the incentives of the ones appointing and funding the unis that you need to look at if you are to understand the outcome.


  2. Is this another story of the edifice of higher education in the western world being brought into a business model and delegated to commercial managers?


    1. Nope. As explained in the link below, commercial management does not exist in Australian universities. A true commerce person would sack half the staff and sell off the land. The fable above is more general and hypothetical: how would you try to appropriate the resources of a university?



  3. Fascinating story! Don’t universities mostly get funded by patents on research, alumni donations, and student fees? I would think that the problem is in someways, the opposite of what you describe. That VC’s would have an incentive to invest too many resources in research or only admit the brightest students. Also, isn’t the competition for quality faculty intense among universities. Wouldn’t professors and researchers react to this power grab by going to work for a different university?


    1. Student fees are the big earner, which is of course nearly entirely dependent on the government (domestic students are dependent on Hecs, foreign students largely come for the visa with the university as the stepping-stone). Research funds matter a bit. Forget about patents and alumni as big money spinners.
      Yes, high quality faculty is mobile and there is competition for them in this country. Indeed, as have said many times, life is pretty good here in Australia for international researchers. I am certainly not complaining about my own situation!
      Whether the Australian tax payer gets the best bang for the tertiary education dollar though is an entirely different matter.


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