Working on both sides of the Atlantic has a lot to be said for it. When things look absolutely terrible in Britain, you can console yourself either with the thought that they are better in the US, or with the alternative: things are so much worse in the US that they can’t really be as bad as all that in Britain. If you think the British government seems hell-bent on wrecking higher education, you can contemplate the way the individual American states have withdrawn funding for public higher education over the past two decades without putting in place an even halfway rational loan system for students, who have seen the cost of tuition rise at double or triple the rate of inflation. Or you can look at the well-off parts of the private sector and reflect that as long as Harvard and Stanford are as prosperous as they presently are, their students will get a terrific education and will get it at a price that even the hardest up can afford, thanks to need-blind admissions and an astonishingly generous system of student support.
The American system is so multifarious and so varied that it lends itself to elation and despair in equal parts. One institution that always induces the sensation that it simply can’t exist because it’s impossible that it should is Bard, a small liberal arts college about 90 miles north of New York on the banks of the Hudson. There are, of course, many liberal arts colleges, mostly in the north-eastern US; they rarely have more than a couple of thousand students, and many of them are as academically rigorous as their Ivy League counterparts. To that extent, Bard isn’t unusual. What is unusual is what else the place does, and the light it shines on British attempts to create ambitious secondary schools for underprivileged young people by linking academies and universities.
US universities often have close ties to preparatory schools - in the American sense of the term, not places where seven-year-olds are sent to learn Latin and cricket, but extremely expensive private schools where teenagers are “prepared” for Princeton, Yale, Harvard or wherever they are destined for.
Since I am always rebuked for arguing that the time to begin getting students ready for higher education is around the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, I shan’t belabour the obvious point that the later you leave it, the harder it is to play catch-up
Bard is another kettle of fish entirely. One of its specialities has for some years been to take liberal education into prisons. Much as in the UK, prisoners in the US are less literate than the population at large, and many of them can barely read or write; but others have enough stamina and enough pre-existing education to get a degree, and over the past 10 years or so, Bard has run higher education programmes in five prisons in New York State and seen more than 200 prisoners graduate with either a BA or an associate’s degree.
Of course, The Open University has been bringing higher education into UK prisons since its inception, but The Open University was set up from the outset as an institution devoted to distance learning and to providing higher education to those who would otherwise have no access to it. Bard began life on an idyllic estate in the buildings of a Victorian seminary, devoted to providing a liberal education to a small number of students in an intimate setting.
The project that has observers crossing their fingers and holding their breath, however, is an “early college” scheme. In essence, it’s a programme for getting underserved students into a high school that will make them “college-ready”, as the jargon has it. There are four such places in operation, one in New Orleans, two in New York City and the most recent in Newark, New Jersey. A month ago, The New York Times ran a heart- wrenching account of the difficulties of students in the Newark school. The story is all too familiar, but nonetheless unhappy for that. A bright boy who gets good grades in the dreadful school he has been attending looks like perfect raw material for a programme to bring him up to speed for degree-level work in due course. But he discovers that he can’t cope. He hasn’t the reading skills, let alone the writing skills. He needs vast amounts of remedial teaching before he can begin on the real work. Since I am always rebuked for arguing that the time to begin getting students ready for higher education is around the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, I shan’t belabour the obvious point that the later you leave it, the harder it is to play catch-up.
But it’s worth belabouring a slightly different point. One oddity that anyone making transatlantic comparisons always encounters is that the British don’t foster liberal arts colleges, but nowadays really need them because so many students hit university uncertain what they want to study for the next three years, let alone do with the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, the US desperately needs to import The Open University, instead of discovering the hard way that massive open online courses, or Moocs, just don’t work without the sort of tutor-led small group backup that the OU has provided for almost half a century.
The energy and imagination of Bard is wonderful, but it is hard not to feel that renovating secondary education by providing an escalator into higher education that students can travel at their own speed is something to be done on a large scale by institutions dedicated to the task.