There is nothing quite like sign-ons to disrupt your uni holidays. We’ve all had the experience of waking up at 6am and desperately refreshing my-SI net in the hopes of securing the class we want. It only takes missing a sign on once, and having a bad timetable all semester, to show you how high stakes of a game it is.

So why is it that sign-ons are so competitive and does it need to be that way? Sign-ons try and allocate the strictly limited number of class places to the students enrolled in a course. Or in microeconomics terms, meet the class demands of students with the limited supply of available places. The issue arises when classes considered to be desirable, usually by virtue of being at a convenient time, have demand that far exceeds their supply.

Whether or not they realise it, students effectively compete in a game to determine who gets these coveted places. If everyone agreed to sign on at midday, then the exact same outcome could occur and no one would have to wake up early. But in reality, this doesn’t happen because there will always be an incentive for individual students to undercut the others and try and sign on slightly earlier, securing their place in the class. In Game Theory terms, signing on early is the dominant strategy and the problem is a ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’. A Prisoner’s Dilemma is a common situation in which each individual pursing their best strategy leads to a sub-optimal outcome. In this case, each person wanting to sign on before the other students leads to a situation where everyone is forced to wake up early and sign on as soon as possible.

In a sense, the current sign-on system is inefficient in that no consideration is given to how much student’s value particular classes i.e. there is no saying that the individuals who get a specific class are the ones who value it the most. Sure, you can be organised and not miss the sign-on but that doesn’t mean that the class you desperately want isn’t filled up by people who have little preference for which class they attend. Let’s face it, there’s a heavy element of chance here – who’s going to remember the sign on, be at their computer, have internet access and be sober enough to tick a few boxes. In theory, a system in which classes are automatically assigned based on each student listing several preferences could be more efficient. Admittedly, this creates a more complicated system for the university, but it does potentially leave more students more pleased with their timetables. For now, it seems that sign-ons are here to stay, so good luck, and at the very worst there will be a whole lot of students you can complain with.

Nick O’Hara

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