Why the U.K. Higher-Education system shouldn’t emulate the U.S.

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A good friend of mine from the United States, observing the British higher-education scene, noted that, whereas the United States had taken 30 years to make its system more market-oriented, it was taking England only two.

The result, I think, is a kind of general culture shock. Universities, students, and parents are still trying to work out where they stand as the challenging—to put it mildly—admissions round this year has shown only too well. (Many English universities have ended up with quite dramatic shortfalls in student numbers because of a new quasi-market.)

Indeed, many commentators are describing the current situation in England as a perfect storm for universities, as immigration restrictions, tuition fees, and admissions-number controls have produced a comprehensive buffeting without any sign that this will somehow make the system either fairer or more internationally competitive, which, in the end, must be the foremost national priorities.

In effect, the English system is trying to move toward a U.S.-style system, complete with market competition and a raft of private providers. But, even if this is possible, I doubt that it is necessarily desirable. With the best will in the world, and taking account of its many, many high points, the United States is not the right system to be emulated for at least four reasons.

First, there are poor U.S. graduation rates: England, in contrast, has remarkably high graduation rates by U.S. standards.

Second, there is suspect student financing: English tuition fees, in contrast, are still relatively low, and the new student-loan system, though not ideal, is still generous by U.S. standards.

Third, there is the preeminence of the private sector: The private sector is growing in the U.K., and it is heavily favored by the government, but it will be highly regulated, meaning that the scandals among some for-profit institutions found in the U.S. are less likely to happen.

Fourth, at the moment, I suspect that parts of the U.S. system are in danger of engaging in a race to the bottom, based on low-cost solutions which will reach more people but at the expense of equity. (Thus Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, has been praising institutions like Western Governor’s University which deliver much of their teaching online, arguing that they should become “the norm.” But I doubt that Arne Duncan will be enrolling his children there.) In contrast, the English system still considers other factors than just cost.

Yet I don’t think there is much doubt that parts of the current U.K. government are enamored of the U.S. system. They espouse the virtues of market discipline as an all-purpose nostrum that will bring competition to institutions which somehow aren’t good enough—even though all the league tables suggest the exact opposite—a market discipline which can somehow be applied to a system in which demand outstrips supply and in which there are, at most, a couple of hundred higher-education institutions in comparison with the 4,500 in the United States.

In most cases, this positive vision of the American system probably arises from a brief brush with an Ivy League university.

Similarly, there is increasing talk about the wonders of online education—which can, of course, be a positive force in the right circumstances as the British Open University amply demonstrates—in the same way as can be found among American counterparts. But, as in the U.S., I doubt that this is an educational opportunity that members of the U.K. government will be seeking out for their children. Rather, it seems more like a way of being able to square the opinions of quite a few members of the population that there are “too many people at university” by consigning a good part of the population to cheap and mainly utilitarian education that will be good enough for “them” (but not for “us”).

In other words, it is clear that there are real risks if England follows the U.S. model of producing a more elitist system under the guise of access for all, one in which students from less well-off backgrounds will actually find themselves in a worse position. They will have choice, but it will be no real choice at all.

Indeed, what seems likely to happen if we carry on in this way is that an elite set of universities will charge the very high tuition fees that students will have to pay to gain access to their very high levels of resource and reputation, while other universities will compete on cost.

The problem is that, just as in the United States, the real purposes of higher education are in danger of being dropped from consideration. I have just been reading Andrew Delbanco’s excellent College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Delbanco makes an eloquent case for the proposition that at the heart of higher education are experiences such as what Emerson called a “drawing out of the soul” and even a kind of grace.

But that argument sounds increasingly dissonant. And I know why. Let’s face it: In the middle of a shattering recession with so many in a state of real economic fear, such qualities sound at best anachronistic and at worst downright obscure. I cannot imagine a political speech that wouldn’t be laughed out of court if it took such a stance.

Let me be clear. I am no particular fan of the state’s involvement in higher education. I am a kind of left-libertarian so far as higher education is concerned, and I would dearly like to see the English higher-education sector being given more freedom to maneuver: the English system is hedged in by a regulatory web whose transaction costs are too high, one that treats its key universities like potentially wayward children even as it becomes more market oriented.

Be that as it may, I think a U.S.-style market solution (one which actually ignores just how complex the U.S. system is) will produce worse higher education not only because it will threaten English universities’ global preeminence but because it will prove to be mean-spirited. I’d like to think that England will stop now and rethink before it is too late.

Nigel Thrift is vice-chancellor and president of the University of Warwick, in England.

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