In a democratic society university admittance policy would be set according to the informed decision of the members of the society – possibly through a representation by an allotted decision-making chamber. The decision makers would have to consider what would be the advantages and disadvantages of possible admittance policies and attempt to design a system that would create maximum benefit for the maximum number of people. (Indeed, in a democratic society, all aspects of university policy, such as the procedure for setting the curriculum, should also be designed so as to maximize the benefit for society as a whole.)
Two effects of the admittance policy that merit consideration are its impact on slot availability and its impact on the ideological stance of the members of the public regarding the benefits of university education. Both of those considerations indicate that a lottery-based admittance policy has clear advantages over the achievement-based policy. While I think that the long term objective for the university system should be to provide quality education to all who seek it, the advantages of the lottery-based admittance system make it both a reasonable system for societies that cannot afford to provide education to all, and make it a good tool for creating a shared interest in reaching this desirable goal.
1. Slot availability
As Conall Boyle emphasizes, the possibility of employing a lottery emerges when a resource is scarce. If the number of applicants to a certain university course is smaller than the available number of slots, then neither a lottery nor any other filtering method is needed. Why, then, are the university slots scarce? Does this scarcity represent the best interests of society? On the face of it, it seems that the natural response to high demand for university slots would be to attempt generate more slots. Would it be difficult to do so?
Oddly, Boyle never focuses on this matter. His most direct reference to this issue is on p. 122:
In the old days, getting onto a university course always required some minimum qualification such as Matriculation. In some countries, most notably Italy, all qualified candidates were entitled to enroll on any course at any university. This led to huge numbers of students, sometimes in their thousands, crowding on to popular courses. Ability to pay fees and support one-self was another means of limiting numbers which applied in my own student days in Ireland in the 1960’s. The ‘affordability’ hurdle was removed for many by the introduction of student grants and subsidised or free tuition. This in turn creates more demand for places. For courses such as medicine and engineering, where laboratory or workshop availability restricts numbers, then some means of rationing the available places is needed.
This seems a very unsatisfactory treatment of a fundamental issue. Expanding facilities is unlikely to be a serious long term obstacle for a modern society, and in any case, there are many theoretical courses for which demand outstrips supply as well (business administration and law, for example). A different explanation would be that there is a shortage of qualified teachers, and that expanding the number of slots would inevitably cause a deterioration in the quality of instruction, resulting in a deterioration in the quality of graduates. Again, this seems like an unlikely long-term issue. Instructors can be trained and there is no reason to think that the pool of all potentially qualifiable instructors has been exhausted.
It seems much more likely that any shortage in the total number of university slots is artificial in the sense that with appropriate investment more slots can be generated, resulting in a a greater number of graduates. The question then is why that investment is not made. Again, a standard answer would be that the investment would be too high, and again, this seems unlikely: the resources needed for reasonably good education are not particularly high ($10,000 a year in a good public university in the U.S., $20,000 at top private U.S. universities).
A possibility that needs to be examined is that the scarcity is maintained since its existence serves some interest. One obvious example of interests being served are those of the select few who do win one of the few university slots. They enjoy social and financial benefits associated with the fact that their status as graduates is relatively rare.
The use of a competitive admittance policy makes it possible for a segment of the population to predict with a certain degree of probability that they will be the beneficiaries of the advantages associated with holding the scarce degrees. Thus, it builds an inherent conflict of interests between that powerful segment of the population and the interests of the majority of the population. Admittance by lottery, on the other hand, makes predicting the beneficiaries impossible, thus dissipating the conflict of interests and making it more likely that the benefits to the public at large would determine public policy.
2. Ideological stance
One of the effects of the admittance policy is its impact on the views of university graduates as well as by other members of the public on the position of graduates in society. A competitive process tends to generate a view in which university slots are seen as a prize for merit. Seen in this way, graduates do not see themselves as having benefited from a deliberate gift provided to them by society, but as a natural elite which is entitled to any benefits associated with its unique status. When this is the case, there is little reason to expect that the benefits to society of the university system would be distributed widely. The graduates would exchange the benefits of their skills for as high rewards as they would manage to obtain – thus extracting for themselves as large a part of the value of the benefits they provide.
Admittance by lottery, on the other hand, makes it clear that the graduates have no right to benefit disproportionately from their diploma. They will naturally be seen by the members of society as merely being lucky and would be expected to serve the community that put them in a privileged position. This view would probably be largely shared by the graduates themselves, leading to a relationship that is not based on a conflict of interests but on cooperation.