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Everyday Economics: Incentives For Prelims

At the absolute heart of economics lie incentives. Raising or lowering taxes, implementing subsidies, implementing tariffs – all with the purpose of incentivizing citizens to either purchase more or less of a good. Economics, in many ways, is a study of human reactions to certain incentives, and attempting to predict them.

When we sit our FHS, all of us – whatever the university or the degree – have similar incentives: the higher the grade, the better the degree, the better our chances of landing our dream job. A simple and crystal clear progression. But our FPE (better known as prelims) tell a very different story.

In order to remain at university, we’re required to pass: nothing more, nothing less. With this most basic incentive, why would anyone sacrifice social or extra-curricular activities in order to come out with anything better than the lowest pass mark possible?

Perhaps it’s the financial incentives ranging from £100-500 per annum, or the clout of a scholar’s gown (and indeed the title), or even accommodation privileges… the list goes on. But in each college, what’s on offer for not just passing but excelling in prelims changes significantly.

Financial incentives are the most widely-adopted policy, with practically every single college offering some sum of money to any undergraduate who achieves academic excellence in prelims or throughout the academic year. But each college differs insofar as the amount of financial reward on offer; you’d most likely expect that the college with the largest funds available to scholars would result in the highest percentage of distinctions within the year group.

49% of Merton’s 2018/19 prelims cohort achieved a distinction. But this 49% receive £250 according to a current Scholar, only half of what Somerville offers its Scholars per annum. And despite being able to claim the largest sum of money that goes towards Scholars, only 20% of Somerville’s cohort received a distinction, enough to rank them at number 27. In fact, the correlation between the degree of financial reward and results is small, and if anything, inversely proportional.

*Data taken from 2018/2019 Prelims Cohort at Undergraduate Colleges

The correlation coefficient between the two variables comes to -0.35, indicating a very weak (almost non-existent) negative correlation. Other incentives, such as Keble’s initiative of providing a certain number of free meals to scholars or St. Hugh’s offer of free vacation residence, still don’t propel such colleges to the top of the leader-board, although they do seem to prevent slipping to the bottom.

Perhaps more consideration should be given to intrinsic incentives such as the culture of a college. Merton’s reputation outdoes itself consistently, and not just on the Norrington Table. The community nature of extremely high academic standards must not be overlooked; indeed, by giving an exam result monetary value in an environment where our principles already constitute hard work and academic satisfaction, are we instead eroding them? Being a Scholar brings with it a huge sense of pride that is well-fostered in the Oxford environment and is enough in and of itself to drive many – but not all – towards a distinction.

The existence of extrinsic incentives are important and make the prospect of a tough Trinity term that much more appealing. All colleges offer some kind of incentive that goes beyond the privilege of a Scholar’s gown; if one college were to take away any additional incentives, undergraduates’ results would be more likely to fall as a consequence of receiving little compensation or credit in comparison to other colleges. The blatant unfairness between colleges would disincentivize students left without rewards almost all other colleges offer.

Then, of course, we encounter the issues, namely inequality, that arise from providing extrinsic incentives. It’s well-known that private school advantages extend beyond the realm of Oxbridge acceptance and still hold a strong impact on prelims performance. With that in mind, those already in a financially privileged position are therefore given even further financial security. Equally, the social aspects – Scholars’ dinners or aesthetic Scholars gowns – create a widening and omnipresent sense of inequality. 

Exhibitions do offer a counteractive approach to this, awarded following judgment of the student’s tutor and therefore allowing for deeper contextual understanding of the student’s academic success. Although Exhibitioners are invited to Scholars dinners and qualify for the Scholars gown, the financial or monetized rewards are far less, with some colleges such as St. Peter’s offering no extrinsic incentives whatsoever.

Are these incentives necessary? Most likely, yes. Many studies have observed the negative impacts that removing extrinsic incentives can have on human behaviour; Murayama et al. conducted one such study, in which subjects were to press a button 5 seconds after the end of a brief stopwatch cue. A free-choice period followed, where subjects would often do it for fun after they were scanned.

Subjects from the non-control group were given two sessions: the first involved financial rewards for accuracy, and the second removed such rewards. In comparison to the control group, who received no financial rewards and were not aware others were receiving them, the treatment subjects were less likely to play the game during the free-choice period. Due to the removal of incentives, the treatment group had become demotivated.

Now that colleges have implemented extrinsic incentives, it would be extremely difficult and detrimental to remove them. Undoubtedly, these incentives will have driven students to perform better in exams than they may have otherwise done. It would be far easier to assume that Merton is an anomaly and that there is a direct positive correlation between the incentives and the results, but it’s clear this is not the case. The academic culture, rather than an outpouring of luxurious riches, has proven itself to be the key ingredient. Raising financial compensation or increasing accommodation benefits will have little impact; focusing on furthering an academically driven college society will have far more.

Then again, we’re already at Oxford. Is more academic pressure really what we want?

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Flora is studying French and Italian at Christ Church. She would like someone to believe her when she says the scar on her knee came from a shark and hopes this biography will make it happen.