A sunshine state of affairs

Florida's not all guns and gators, says Alan Ryan - it funds a liberal arts college

April 24, 2008

It would be hard for a British visitor to give unequivocal endorsement to the Florida legislature - even a British visitor who did not share my detestation of all things Republican. In the past week, legislators have voted that businesses cannot restrict the right of employees to keep loaded weapons locked in the glove compartments of their cars; the obsession with the Second Amendment right to "keep and bear arms" overrides the obsession with the sanctity of property. Businesses have hitherto assumed that their right to dictate what goes on their premises included the right to prevent their employees turning up with their weaponry.

And, in line with the strange American love affair with foetuses, they are in the middle of voting to require that women wanting an abortion within the first trimester will have to view the ultrasound image of the foetus they wish to abort. As anyone who has ever looked at an ultrasound scan will know, early-stage images are not immediately intelligible to the untrained eye, so the person doing the scan will have to explain what the image shows in a way that will make the process intelligible but psychologically harder work than it would be anyway. In short, it's yet another attempt to bully both the women who want the abortion and the doctors performing the termination. The obsession with preserving the unborn child consorts as oddly as ever with the incapacity to produce a health service that would look after poor children once they've made it into the world.

However, even the Florida legislature can get some things right; it may be that it's done partly by inadvertence, but then again it may not. One thing it has got right is the preservation of a tiny - by the standards of American public universities - liberal arts college, which is a rarity in both being a true liberal arts college and being supported by the state at a level that makes it possible to preserve the qualities that make liberal arts colleges special. This is all the more surprising because Florida's politicians share the delusion of most politicians that they know vastly better than the mere professoriate just how higher education should be run.

New College of Florida, in Sarasota, was created about 50 years ago, ran into financial difficulties as a private institution, and in 1975 was incorporated into the University of South Florida - a multi-campus, 45,000-student and 2,000-faculty public research university. It survived as a combination of the honours college of USF and as its own self until 2001, when Governor Jeb Bush had the generous and imaginative thought that it could be both independent and publicly funded. It now exists once more as a freestanding institution with its own trustees, president, provost and the like. Its staff-to-student ratio, 1:10, is about twice as generous as that at other public universities, and 50 per cent more generous than at the University of Oxford, although its fees (about £2,000 a year for Florida residents and £10,000 a year for out-of-state students) are the same as those at any other public university.

How does it avoid being cannibalised by the bigger universities? By being seen as the jewel in the crown of the public higher education system. With only 750 students, it does not cost the rest of the system a lot of money, and it probably represents a bargain if construed as state expenditure on public relations. It induces nostalgia for the days of unabashed experiment that gave us what I suppose we must now call "the formerly new universities". Students agree a contract with their teachers: they say what they will learn and accomplish and what courses they will take, and put up with the consequences of a broken contract. The faculty teach whatever seems good to them - and to the curriculum committee, which they have to persuade to share their view of what is worth teaching. The result is a lot of happy students and teachers. On good days, it was very much like that when the University of Sussex was created.

This no doubt raises the question uppermost in Universities Secretary John Denham's mind: but what about employment? The answer, of course, is that New College does fine; like other liberal arts colleges, it produces a higher proportion of students who go on to graduate school than large public institutions do, but most of its alumni go on to become lawyers, managers, civil servants and the rest, exactly as happens everywhere else. It remains as unclear as ever why we don't have such places here; the raw materials have existed for a long time, but every little college decides it wants to be the university of here, there and somewhere else.

It is, of course, one aspect of the much larger disasters produced by the tyranny of league tables on the one hand and rigid central funding on the other. We have somehow contrived to get the worst of all worlds; we have the political interference typical of American public systems, but the Higher Education Funding Council for England has neither the authority to plan the future of the system nor much discretion in bribing institutions to do what they are good at and to forgo the rest. So it is a refreshing change to see an otherwise not very impressive political system get something really right.

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