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Posts Tagged ‘efficiency’

The labour cost

In the UK, we take it for granted that if you need to see a doctor, you go and give little, if any thought, to the cost. It may be petrol costs, time off work or the cost of a prescription, but beyond that, receiving treatment is free at the point of use. Funded through a progressive tax system, the NHS is seen as being one of the more equitable health care systems.

When a mother gives birth, the main thing she will have to worry about is the labour – and not whether to have certain painkillers or stay an extra night, because of the cost.

The International Federation of Health Plans (IFHP) looked at data on the cost of giving birth, based on insurance company payments. For someone living in the UK, the figures make for quite astonishing reading. In the USA, a normal delivery will cost $10,000, while a caesarean totals $15,000, meaning that giving birth in the USA is the most expensive place in the world. The article linked below takes the case of Mari Roberts, whose total delivery bill came to over $100,000. The insurance did cover it, but that’s not always the case. Medical bills in the United States are one of the leading reasons for bankruptcy and with these types of figures, perhaps it’s hardly surprising.

Other countries also see high costs for delivery, where expectant mothers really do need to give consideration to the length of their stay in hospital and perhaps even whether they are willing to forgo a pain-relieving drug and save some money. There is often said to be an efficiency–equity trade-off in the area of healthcare, with countries offering a free at the point of use service delivering an equitable system, but with a lack of responsiveness to the demands of the patients. In the UK, you don’t pay to see a doctor but, with a ‘free’ service, demand is understandably very high, thus creating a shortage and waiting lists. In countries, such as the USA, a higher price for treatment does limit demand, creating more inequity but a responsive system.

There are certainly lessons that can be learned from all health care systems and living in a developed country, we should certainly consider ourselves lucky. There are many countries where access to even the most basic health care is a luxury that most cannot afford. So, where does have the best health care system? I’ll leave that to you.

Video and article
How much do women around the world pay to give birth? BBC News, Mariko Oi (13/2/15)

Report
Research for Universal Health Coverage, World Health Report 2013 World Health Organisation August 2013
Health Systems Financing: The Path to Universal Coverage, World Health Report 2010 World Health Organisation August 2010

Questions

  1. Using a demand and supply diagram, explain why there may be a trade-off between efficiency and equity.
  2. If there is over-consumption of a service such as health care, does this suggest that the market fails?
  3. What are the main market failures that exist in health care?
  4. Is the concept of opportunity cost relevant to mothers in labour? Think about the country in question.
  5. How would you go about ranking health care systems if you worked for an organisation such as the OECD or WHO?
  6. Pick a country whose health care system you are familiar with. What changes have occurred to the way in which health care is organised and financed in this country? How has it affected the key objectives that formed part of your answer to question 5?
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A windfall for electricity producers?

When an industry produces positive externalities, there is an argument for granting subsidies. To achieve the socially efficient output in an otherwise competitive market, the marginal subsidy should be equal to the marginal externality. This is the main argument for subsidising wind power. It helps in the switch to renewable energy away from fossil fuels. There is also the secondary argument that subsidies help encourage the development of technologies that would be too uncertain to fund at market rates.

If subsidies are to be granted, it is important that they are carefully designed. Not only does their rate need to reflect the size of the positive externalities, but also they should not entail any perverse incentive effects. But this is the claim about subsidies given to wind turbines: that they create an undesirable side effect.

Small-scale operators are encouraged to build small turbines by offering them a higher subsidy per kilowatt generated (through higher ‘feed-in’ tariffs). But according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), this is encouraging builders and operators of large turbines to ‘derate’ them. This involves operating them below capacity in order to get the higher tariff. As the IPPR overview states:

The scheme is designed to support small-scale providers, but the practice of under-reporting or ‘derating’ turbines’ generating capacity to earn a higher subsidy is costing the taxpayer dearly and undermining the competitiveness of Britain’s clean energy sector.

The loophole sees developers installing ‘derated’ turbines – that is, turbines which are ‘capped’ so that they generate less energy. Turbines are derated in this way so that developers and investors are able to qualify for the more generous subsidy offered to lower-capacity turbines, generating 100–500kW. By installing derated turbines, developers are making larger profits off a feature of the scheme that was designed to support small-scale projects. Currently, the rating of a turbine is declared by the manufacturer and installer, resulting in a lack of external scrutiny of the system.

The subsidies are funded by consumers through higher electricity prices. As much as £400 million could be paid in excess subsidies. The lack of scrutiny means that operators could be receiving as much as £100 000 per year per turbine in excess subsidies.

However, as the articles below make clear, the facts are disputed by the wind industry body, RenewableUK. Nevertheless, the report is likely to stimulate debate and hopefully a closing of the loophole.

Video
Turbine power: the cost of wind power to taxpayers Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (10/2/15)

Articles
Wind subsidy loophole boosts spread of bigger turbines Financial Times, Pilita Clark (10/2/15)
Call to Close Wind Power ‘Loophole’ Herald Scotland, Emily Beament (10/2/15)
Wind farm developers hit back at ‘excessive subsidy’ claims Business Green, Will Nichols (10/2/15)
The £400million feed-in frenzy: Green energy firms accused of making wind turbines LESS efficient so they appear weak enough to win small business fund Mail Online, Ben Spencer (10/2/15)
Wind power subsidy ‘loophole’ identified by new report Engineering Technology Magazine, Jonathan Wilson (11/2/15)

Report
Feed-in Frenzy Institute for Public Policy Research, Joss Garman and Charles Ogilvie (February 2015)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to demonstrate the optimum marginal rate of a subsidy and the effect of the subsidy on output.
  2. Who should pay for subsidies: consumers, the government (i.e. taxpayers generally), electricity companies through taxes on profits made from electricity generation using fossil fuels, some other source? Explain your thinking.
  3. What is the argument for giving a higher subsidy to operators of small wind turbines?
  4. If wind power is to be subsidised, is it better to subsidise each unit of output of electricity, or the construction of wind turbines or both? Explain.
  5. What could Ofgem do (or the government require Ofgem to do) to improve the regulation of the wind turbine industry?
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The Royal Mail

With Christmas approaching, sales will once again begin to rise and cards will be written. Mail services will be at their busiest as we post millions of cards and parcels every day. But, the question is: will they arrive? Workers in the supply chain at Royal Mail have voted to strike over pay.

Since the part privatisation of Royal Mail, many criticisms have emerged, ranging from the price at which shares were sold, the efficiency of the Royal Mail, suggestions of varying prices for delivery depending on location, and now over pay. As with any labour market, there is a demand and a supply of workers and the intersection of these curves creates our equilibrium wage. If the wage is forced up above the equilibrium wage by the actions of trade unions, then there is the potential for unemployment to be created.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) feels that their pay is insufficient. Dave Ward, Deputy General Secretary of CWU said:

“Thanks entirely to the unreasonable attitude of Post Office management, a pre-Christmas national strike is looking inevitable…The workforce has made a major contribution to the company’s success and have every right to their fair share.”

However, the head of the supply chain at Royal Mail has responded to the threats of strike, referring to the 5% pay rise promised to its workers over the next three years, saying:

“We are undertaking the biggest modernisation programme in UK retail history to ensure we become commercially viable and reduce our reliance on public money…We urge the CWU to reconsider their unrealistic demands and discuss an affordable pay deal rather than call strike action which can only cost our people money.”

The row over pay is not the only way that job losses could emerge. A major criticism levelled at the Royal Mail is its lack of efficiency, especially in terms of cost reductions and work flexibility. The Royal Mail has become increasingly concerned by competition, especially as its low-cost competitors can choose to whom they deliver. Those living in built up areas receive mail, but for those living in more rural areas, some of Royal Mail’s competitors will not deliver there, because of the higher costs. Royal Mail does not have this luxury and hence must deliver to loss-making places. Royal Mail says that this is creating unfair pressure to its business and is calling for these competitors to be forced to deliver to rural areas and small businesses. However, one such company, Whistl, has said that the figures from Royal Mail suggest that ‘productivity is not a sufficiently high enough management priority.

If the strike does go ahead in the build up to Christmas, then the management priorities of Royal Mail will certainly be under scrutiny. The following articles consider the current situation.

Exclusive: Ofcom to criticise Royal Mail efficiency Independent, Mark Leftly (24/11/14)
Post Office facing pre-Christmas strike action BBC News (18/11/14)
DPD seeks to put Royal Mail under further pressure with hiring Financial Times, Fill Plimmer (23/11/14)
Royal Mail’s Moya Greene should stop whinging and start delivering The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (22/11/14)
CWU deem Post Office strike over Christmas ‘inevitable’ Post&Parcel (19/11/14)

Questions

  1. If there is strike action in a labour market, what can we conclude about the market in question in terms of how competitive it is?
  2. Is strike action completely pointless?
  3. What actions could workers take, other than strike action, to achieve a resolution of their grievances? Discuss what employers could offer in an attempt to resolve the situation?
  4. What are the arguments for making Royal Mail’s competitors deliver to all places, just as the Royal Mail must do?
  5. The efficiency of the Royal Mail has been called into question. If efficiency improved, would this mean that pay rises were more or less feasible?
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Quiet Underground; Busy Overground

Getting around London is pretty easy to do. Transport, though often criticized, is very effective in and around London – at least when the Underground is running uninterrupted. However, since 9pm on Tuesday 4th February until the morning of 7th February, the underground will be operating well below full capacity, as strike action affects many workers.

Transport for London has plans to cut many jobs, in particular through the closure of ticket office at all stations. Modernisation to the network is said to be essential, not just to improve the existing system, but also as it is predicted to save £50 million per year. Data suggests that only 3% of transactions involve people using ticket offices and thus the argument is that having offices manned is a waste of money and these workers would be better allocated to manning stations. David Cameron said:

I unreservedly condemn this strike. There is absolutely no justification for a strike. We need a modernised tube line working for the millions of Londoners who use it every day.

Workers on London Underground are naturally concerned about the impact this will have, in particular on their jobs, despite assurances that there will be no compulsory redundancies.

The impact of these strikes on workers in London is clearly evident by any pictures you look at. Buses were over-crowded, despite more than 100 extra being provided, pavements were packed with pedestrians and the roads were full of cyclists. At least the strike action has led to a little more exercise for many people! The disruption to business in London is likely to be relatively large and the loss in revenue due to the action will also be high, estimated by Business leaders to be tens of millions of pounds. It is perhaps for this reason that there is discussion as to whether the underground should be declared an ‘essential service’ as a means of minimising future disruptions.

Discussions have been ongoing between both sides to try to prevent this action and talks are likely to continue in the future. Boris Johnson has declared the strikes as ‘completely pointless’ and both sides have argued that the other has been unwilling to negotiate and discuss the ticket office closures. Boris Johnson said:

A deal is there to be done. I am more than happy to talk to Bob Crow if he calls off the pointless and unnecessary strike.

The impact on London and the economy will only be fully known after the strike action is over, but there are plans for further strikes next week. The greater the disruption the bigger the calls for further strikes on key services, such as the tube, to be prevented. In particular, this may mean new powers to curtail the rights of unions in these types of areas, which will require a minimum service to be provided. The following articles consider the strike action on the London Underground.

Tube strike: London Underground disrupts commuters BBC News (5/2/14)
Boris Johnson apologises for ‘pointless’ tube strike delays The Telegraph (5/2/14)
London hit by travel chaos as Tube staff goes on strike Reuters, Julia Fioretti (5/2/14)
London Underground staff stage 48-hour strike Sky News (5/2/14)
Tube strike disrupts journeys for London commuters The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (5/2/14)
Tube strike 2014: Travel chaos as industrial action over ticket office closures hits underground services in London Independent, Rob Williams (5/2/14)
What’s the tube strike really about? BBC News, Tom Edwards (4/2/14)

Questions

  1. If there is strike action in a labour market, what can we conclude about the market in question in terms of how competitive it is?
  2. If only 3% of transactions take place via ticket offices, is it an efficient use of resources to maintain the presence of ticket offices at every station?
  3. Is industrial action ‘completely pointless’?
  4. What other solutions are there besides strike action to problems of industrial dispute?
  5. What is the role of ACAS in negotiations?
  6. What is the economic impact of the strike on the London Underground? Think about the impact on businesses, revenues, sales and both micro and macro consequences.
  7. Should the tube be seen as an essential service such that strike action by its workers would be restricted?
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Is underemployment the new unemployment?

Unemployment is a term that economists and non-economists are familiar with, even if the non-economists perhaps have a less stringent definition of what we term unemployment. Typically, we say you are unemployed if you are of working age and available for work at the current wage rate, but are not in work. Another important and related concept is that of underemployment, which according to the ONS, is a growing problem in the economy.

Latest figures released by the ONS show that just over 10% of all workers in the UK would like to work more hours each week. This is essentially what underemployment is and it typically affects part-time workers who want to move closer to a full-time job, but are unable to find the necessary hours from their employer. As the economic situation in the UK worsened after the financial crisis, unemployment increased rapidly. Some people went from working full-time to part-time and others simply lost their job. As the economy started to stabilize, people began returning to work, but many found that part-time employment was the only option, despite wanting to work many more hours at the going wage rate. As the ONS said:

During this period [the economic downturn] many workers moved from full-time to part-time roles and many of those returning to work after a period of unemployment could only find part-time jobs … Of the extra one million underemployed workers in 2012 compared with 2008, three-quarters were in part-time posts.

The increase in underemployment has levelled off and though the recession has been a key contributing factor to the higher levels of underemployment, it’s important to note that it can be caused by a few things, as outlined by the ONS.

• employers only being able to offer a few hours of work each week
• workers, such as bar staff, being in jobs where they are only required for a few hours a day
• personal circumstances changing so that someone now wants to work more hours than before
• people settling for a part-time job as second-best when they would much rather have a full-time one

Although many people are happy with their part-time jobs and hence would not see themselves as underemployed, for those who are underemployed, the fact that they cannot find sufficient hours seems to indicate an inefficiency within the economy, especially if long-term unemployment or underemployment emerges. This problem is particularly relevant amongst the young and those in low-skilled jobs. However, it is also an increasing problem amongst the self-employed.

The implications of underemployment are far-reaching. Naturally it adversely affects an individual’s financial situation, which at the current time with rising household bills can have devastating consequences. There are also wider effects such as the economic implications in terms of economic growth and inefficiency, as well as a potential increased strain on the tax and benefits system. Given these far-reaching consequences, it is an issue that everyone should be concerned about. The following articles consider the growth of underemployment in the UK economy.

Underemployed workers jump by 1m since financial crisis Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (28/11/12)
Underemployment affects 10.5% of UK workforce (including video) BBC News (28/11/12)
Economic crash leaves an extra 1million workers under-employed and wanting more hours Mail Online (28/11/12)
UK is underemployed: should we be surprised? BBC News, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (28/11/12)
Unemployment affects 1 in 10 workers, ONS says Guardian, Mark King (28/11/12)
One in 10 workers no underemployed Financial Times, Brian Groom (28/11/12)
Underemployment rises to affect one in ten workers Channel 4 News (28/11/12)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between unemployment and underemployment? Is one worse than the other?
  2. Why did underemployment initially begin to rise after the financial crisis and what factors helped to slow the increase?
  3. How can underemployment be measured? Is it likely to be accurate?
  4. Part-time work has risen in recent decades, as part of a more flexible labour market. Do you think this is a good thing or does it add to the problem of underemployment?
  5. What are the economic implications of underemployment? You should think about the effects on an individual, their family, society and the wider economy.
  6. How can someone who is self-employed be classed as underemployed?
  7. What action, if any, can be taken by the government to tackle the rising problem of underemployment?
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Oligopolies galore

Oligopoly: it’s a complex market structure and although closer to the monopoly end of the ‘Market Structure Spectrum’, it can still be a highly competitive market. The characteristics are well-documented and key to the degree of competition within any oligopoly is the number of competitors and extent to which there are barriers to entry.

The greater the barriers and the fewer the competitors the greater the power the established firms have. This can then spell trouble for pricing and hence for consumers. The following articles are just some examples of the oligopolies that exist around the world and some of the benefits and problems that accompany them.

Articles
Oligopoly of PSU oil cos reason for high ATF prices The Indian Express, Smita Aggarwal (30/4/12)
Group energy buying hits the UK headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe(18/1/11)
German cartel office probes petrol companies on pricing Fox Business (4/4/12)
Gov’t unveils steps to lower fuel prices Yonhap News (19/4/12)
How big banks threaten our economy Wall Street Journal, Warren Stephens (29/4/12)
UK Governance: Call for Whitehall to simplify the landscape for SME suppliers to win more government contracts The Information Daily (26/4/12)

Other blogs
Pumping up the price: fuel cartels in Germany April 2012
Energy profit margins up by over 700% October 2011
Every basket helps October 2011
The art of oligopoly December 2010

Questions

  1. What are the assumptions of an oligopolistic market structure?
  2. Consider (a) the energy sector and (b) the banking sector. To what extent does each market conform with the assumptions of an oligopoly?
  3. In the ‘Spend Matters’ article, a group of people in a Lincolnshire village formed a local buying consortium to negotiate deals for heating oil. What could we refer to this as?
  4. To what extent is an oligopoly in the public interest?
  5. Explain how barriers to entry in oligopolies affect the competitiveness and efficiency of a market.
  6. Illustrate how an oligopolistic market structure can fix prices and hence exploit consumers.
  7. How have the actions of the big oil companies in both the UK and Germany been against independent retailers and the consumer interest?
  8. What action can governments take to break up oligopolies? Will it always be effective?
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Fuelling the debate on poverty

Since Labour’s historic pledge to eliminate child poverty in a generation, poverty data has been at the forefront of political debates. The recession has created unemployment and has moved more people below the poverty line, at the same time as causing rising inequality

The causes of poverty are diverse and a recent government commissioned report has drawn attention to just one of the key factors that is pushing more families into poverty – energy bills.

Fuel poverty has become more of a concern with the cost of household bills rising and this has led to calls for more money to be invested in cutting energy bills. Fuel poverty has been redefined by Professor John Hills, the author of the report, to focus on those households with a low income and also with relatively high energy bills.

Fuel poverty is undoubtedly concerning from a moral point of view – indeed, knowing that some families are unable to afford to heat their homes causes disutility for others. However, there are also wider economic implications. If families are unable to provide heating, this may adversely affect their children’s ability to learn and complete their homework, thus negatively affecting their productivity today and arguable causing further problems in their future. While this may have little effect today, the cumulative effect on economic productivity could be substantial in the long run. Inefficiency for the macroeconomy is therefore a problem, as a child’s productive potential will not be fully realized. Furthermore, there are also health concerns, as the government notes – fuel poverty is linked to 2,700 deaths per year. Again, this creates a blight on society, but it also poses economic problems, not least due to the strain on the NHS.

Fuel poverty has long been identified as a problem that needs addressing and as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:

‘Fuel poverty is a serious national problem and this government remains committed to doing all it can to tackle it and make sure that the help available reaches those who need it most.’

Action is already taking place to insulate the poorest homes, as a means of cutting their energy bills and the government’s ‘Warm Homes Discount’ aims to provide help to the lowest income households in paying their bills. However, there are concerns that more households will move into fuel poverty, as this new definition doesn’t include those slightly wealthier households who still have high bills or the poorer households with relatively low bills. With the economy still in a vulnerable state, the latest data showing further rises in unemployment and household bills becoming increasingly expensive, the issue of fuel poverty is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The following articles consider this issue.

Fuel poverty seen for 3 million households by 2016 Reuters (16/3/12)
Fuel poverty to rise to 8.5m, report warns (including video) BBC News, Damian Kahya (15/3/12)
Nine million will live in ‘fuel poverty’ in the next four years Independent, Simon Read (16/3/12)
Fuel poverty to rise sharply Telegraph, James Hall (16/3/12)
Call for urgent action on fuel poverty Financial Times, Sarah Neville (15/3/12)
Fuel poverty worse than estimated The Press Association (15/3/12)
3 million fuel-poor households by 2016, report claims Guardian, Mark King and Zammy Fairhurst (15/3/12)

Questions

  1. What are the causes of poverty?
  2. How has the definition of fuel poverty changed? Is the change a good one? Think about the equity and efficiency of such a change.
  3. The BBC News article says that government measures to alleviate fuel poverty could be regressive. What is meant by this and why could this be the case?
  4. What are the economic consequences of fuel poverty?
  5. We can estimate poverty by looking at the poverty headcount or the poverty gap. What is the difference between these two measures? Which one is a more accurate measure of poverty?
  6. Are there any other actions that you think would be effective in alleviating fuel poverty? Would they be cost effective?
  7. Why does Age UK fear ‘the current proposals to improve energy efficiency through the Green Deal and energy obligation schemes are a woefully inadequate response to one of the most serious issues facing our country today’?
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A private healthcare system?

In the UK, we have a dominant public healthcare sector and a small private sector. In the blog Is an education monopoly efficient? we looked at the idea of an education monopoly and why that may create inefficiencies in the system in comparison with competitive private markets. Does the same argument hold for the market for healthcare? The NHS is largely a state monopoly, although market forces are used in certain areas, which does bring some benefits of competition. However, was the NHS to be privatized, would we see further efficiency gains? As we stated in the previously mentioned blog: ‘the more competition there is, the more of an incentive firms have to provide consumers with the best deal, in terms of quality, efficiency and hence price.’

Privatisation of the NHS has always been regarded with skepticism – of all the British welfare state institutions, the NHS is the most symbolic. However, we have recently seen a takeover of a NHS hospital by a private firm. It’s not privatisation, but it is a step towards a more privately run healthcare system.

Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridge is only small, but has a history of large debts – £40m and yet only a turnover of about £105m. This new strategy will still see the NHS owning the hospitals, but the private firm becoming liable for the hospital’s debts and essentially taking over the running of it. However, Circle aims to repay all the debts within 10 years and make a profit. There are many skeptics of this bold new approach, suggesting that Circle’s numbers don’t add up, especially with the flat NHS spending we’re going to see. However, the firm does have a positive track record in terms of making efficiency savings and whilst success will undoubtedly be a good thing – it may bring up some pertinent questions for the way in which the NHS is and should be run.

Hinchingbrooke hospital deal shakes up NHS Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (10/11/11)
Failing NHS hospital is taken over by private firm for the first time in history Mail Online, Jenny Hope (11/11/11)
Andrew Lansley’s NHS is all about private sector hype Guardian, John Lister (11/11/11)
Circle clinches hospital management deal Reuters, Tim Castle (11/11/11)
Will profits come before patients in a hospital run by a private company? Independent, Oliver Wright (11/11/11)
Hospital group’s liabilities capped at £7m Financial Times, Sarah Neville and Gill Plimmer (10/11/11)
First privately run NHS hospital ‘is accident waiting to happen’ Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (10/11/11)
Government rejects hospital privatisation claims BBC News, Democracy Live (10/11/11)

Questions

  1. What are the benefits of competition?
  2. What are the market failures within the healthcare market? To what extent do you think that public sector provision (in the form of the NHS) is the most effective type of intervention?
  3. Is this just the first step towards privatisation of healthcare?
  4. Do you think private ownership of hospitals with significant debts is a good strategy?
  5. Why do you think Unison have argued that Circle’s takeover is ‘an accident waiting to happen’?
  6. Does privatisation mean that profits will be more important than patient care?
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Is an education monopoly efficient?

There has always been relatively widespread agreement that the best method to produce and finance education is via the government. Education is such a key service, with huge positive externalities, but information is far from perfect. If left to the individual, many would perhaps choose not to send their children to school. Whether it be because they lack the necessary information, they don’t value education or they need the money their child could earn by going out to work – perhaps they put the welfare of the whole family unit above the welfare of one child. However, with such large external benefits, the government intervenes by making education compulsory and goes a step further in many countries and provides and finances it too.

However, is this the right way to provide education? People like choice and the ability to exercise their consumer sovereignty. The more competition there is, the more of an incentive firms have to provide consumers with the best deal, in terms of quality, efficiency and hence price. We see this every day when we buy most goods. Many car salesrooms to visit – all the dealerships trying to offer us a better deal. Innovation in all industries – one phone is developed, only to be trumped by a slightly better one. This is only one of the many benefits of competition. Yet, education sectors are largely monopolies, run by the government. Many countries have a small private sector and there is substantial evidence to suggest that education standards in it are significantly higher. Research from Harvard University academics, covering 220,000 teenagers, suggests that competition from private schools improves achievement for all students. Martin West said:

“The more competition the state schools face for students, the stronger their incentive to perform at high levels…Our results suggest that students in state-run schools profit nearly as much from increased private school competition as do a nation’s students as a whole.”

The study concluded that an increase in the percentage of private school pupils made the education system more competitive and therefore more efficient, with an overall improvement in education standards. With so much evidence in favour of competition in other markets in addition to the above study, what makes education so different?

Or is it different? Should there be more competition in this sector – many economists, including Milton Friedman, say yes. He proposed a voucher scheme, whereby parents were given a voucher to cover the cost of sending their child to school. However, the parents could decide which school they sent their child to – a private one or a state run school. This meant that schools were in direct competition with each other to attract parents, their children and hence their money. Voucher schemes have been trialed in several places, most prominently in Sweden, where the independent sector has significantly expanded and results have improved. Is this a good policy? Should it be expanded and implemented in countries such as the UK and US? The following articles consider this.

Articles
School Competition rescues kids: the government’s virtual monopoly over K-12 education has failed Hawaii Reporter, John Stossel (30/10/11)
Private schools boosts national exam results Guardian, Jessica Shepherd (15/9/10)
Can the private sector play a helpful role in education? Osiris (10/8/11)
Voucher critics are misleading the public Tribune Review, TribLive, Joy Pullmann (30/10/11)
Vouchers beat status quo The Times Tribune (29/10/11)
Why are we allowing kids to be held hostage by a government monopoly? Fox News, John Stossel (26/10/11)
Free Schools – freedom to privatise education The Socialist (26/10/11)
Anyone noticed the Tories are ‘nationalising’ schools? Guardian, Mike Baker (17/10/11)

Publications
School Choice works: The case of Sweden Milton & Rose D Friedman Foundation, Frederick Bergstrom and Mikael Sandstrom (December 2002)

Questions

  1. What are the general benefits of competition?
  2. How does competition in the education market improve efficiency and hence exam results? Think about results in the private sector.
  3. What is the idea of a voucher scheme? How do you think it will affect the efficiency of the sector?
  4. What do you think would happen to equity in if a scheme such as the voucher programme was implemented in the UK?
  5. How do you think UK families would react to the introduction of a voucher scheme?
  6. What other policies have been implemented in the UK to create more competition in the education sector? To what extent have they been effective?
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Nokia’s phone battle

Nokia is finding out just how competitive the phone industry is, as it sees its third quarter figures come in at a loss. Google and Apple have seen their market shares rise and this has had an adverse effect on the Finnish company, Nokia. This goes some way to backing up the job losses seen earlier in the year, when 7000 jobs were cut and there was a re-allocation of workers towards ‘smartphones’.

Despite Nokia’s disappointing results in this sector, it has seen growth in its sales of other more simple phones, illustrating its ability to focus on this aspect of the market. Its sales were higher than forecast at 107 million handsets in the third quarter, showing some signs of a changing trend for the firm. However, with competition ever increasing, Nokia will need to consider its future strategy very carefully.

Nokia reports lower-than-estimated loss as profit forecast for phone unit Bloomberg, Diana Ben-Aaron (20/10/11)
Nokia swings to loss in third quarter BBC News (20/10/11)
Nokia boosted by sales of cheap handsets Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (20/10/11)
Nokia beats forecasts with sales of 107m phones Guardian, Juliette Garside and Charles Arthur (20/10/11)
Nokia prepares for ‘solid’ windows phone launch Telegraph, Matt Warman (25/10/11)

Questions

  1. How would you describe Nokia’s strategy of focusing on cheaper and simpler phones?
  2. Would you say Nokia’s strategy is sensible? What factors will determine its success?
  3. How have Apple and Google managed to expand their market share and become serious competitors to firms like Nokia?
  4. Into which market structure would you classify the phone industry?
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