A good friend of mine recently retired from a part-time job at a subsidised book store run by the Students’ Union. A relatively banal event, marked by a celebratory dinner in a top Dublin restaurant at the expense of tax-payers and students.
The student-run book store in Trinity College is inefficient and unnecessary. Since it doesn’t help the targeted demographic of underprivileged students, it should be privatised.
For those unfamiliar with the Student Union (SU) book store, they deal in second-hand books and provide them to students at decent prices. The selection of books is not limited strictly to academic texts, and employees engage in an annual pilgrimage to London to purchase used books for the store – all paid for by the college, of course.
Let’s establish some background to the discussion. There is a high opportunity cost to locating the book store in the current on-campus location. If the college were to rent the space out to the highest bidder, no doubt that somebody would be more than willing to pay a significant sum for it.
Let’s imagine that the area was rented out by a private second-hand book store. This rent could supplant existing marginal revenue sources of the university – specifically, increases in the student registration fee. Would books be provided to students at lower costs? It depends.
The extra costs associated with private enterprise (to pay rent and profit) would be assuaged by increases in efficiency of service. The current student-run initiative is filled with croneyism and inefficiency – with hiring decisions made on vague ethos-based criteria, and the obvious difficulties arising when students manage their friends.
Meanwhile, the private firm would have the incentives and freedom necessary to impose efficient work-place practices and fire ineffective workers. Competition in the free market would ensure the most efficient book store secured the location. Even if prices were slightly higher (and they may not be), the new private enterprise would be selling more books to more people.
There may be an argument for taxing students through the registration fee in order to subsidise disadvantaged students who could not otherwise afford necessary books. Does this policy essentially achieve that? Not by a long shot.
Sure, the store supplies books – but there’s no guarantee that they’ll have the specific texts that poor students may be looking for. Ironically, the poorest students in the university are less likely to shop here and more likely to take books out of the library. It was a pointless policy to begin with.
What have we learned? The book store incurs costs on all students, as the opportunity cost would reduce the burden on students imposed by the registration fee. The book store imparts benefits on some students – those lucky enough to obtain a job through the incessant croneyism, and those who fancy purchasing whatever random selection of books are present.
If the college really wanted to support the disadvantaged members of our community, skip the middle man – who in this case is a cabal of rackateering students that exploit their privileged position by celebrating significant events in Trocadero. Book vouchers for the underprivileged could be administered far more effectively by the college.
Of course, if the university was forced to actually analyse the necessity of such a policy, they would soon realise that it was completely unnecessary. Is a student-run book store likely to supply titles that the college library doesn’t stock? Nope. Given that any student has access to the library, the college should stop wasting our money on the SU book store.
Republished as “Students’ Union Book Store: Inefficient, unnecessary, and doesn’t help the target underprivileged demographic” in the University Times (20th of January, 2010). See the official response “In defence of a student run bookshop” in the University Times (10th of February, 2010). See the letter in response “The student run bookshop” in the University Times (10th of March, 2010).
© The Free Marketeer 2010