Alan Ryan

November 15, 2002

'The cheapness of tuition at US public institutions is explained by bad staff-to-student ratios, mediocre salaries and an awful lot of casual help'

If the UK adopts US-style fees, neither the hopes of the greedy nor the fears of the needy will be realised, says Alan Ryan, the first of our new regular columnists.

People have been letting cats out of bags at a great rate recently. What with plans for mergers, and fees of up to £15,000 a year for UK students - they're already about £20,000 for overseas medics and for MBA courses - it seems that any time now UK higher education will look just like US higher education. That is, not "two-tier", but multi-tier, with some institutions serving as local providers of post-secondary vocational education, some providing more broad-gauge education for a wider clientele, and some devoted, above all, to expensive high-end research in an internationally competitive arena.

Many people view the prospect with alarm, not least would-be students and their parents who know that Harvard University charges well over £20,000 a year for tuition and board and lodging and can't imagine how to find £80,000 for a four-year degree, let alone £120,000 for the six years of a medical degree. It's also a prospect that other people - mostly vice-chancellors - view with pleasure, as they contemplate Harvard's £12 billion endowment, as do faculty members who think it would be good to be paid properly. Not many people pause to wonder what life is like for students outside Harvard, what they pay, and who contributes what to the bill.

A calming experience is to read the Almanac of The Chronicle of Higher Education . Each year, it sets out who gets paid what, who charges what, and a whole lot more, and it makes it very clear that if UK higher education comes to resemble US higher education ever more closely, neither the fears of the badly off nor the hopes of the avaricious will be realised.

There are almost 15 million students in total; 12,681,000 of them undergraduates. Just under two-thirds are full-time students and women make up 56 per cent of the number. More than 11 million go to public institutions; the UK government's hope that further education colleges will do a lot to deliver the "higher education experience" for 50 per cent of 18-year-olds is a done deal in the US. Half a million associate degrees were awarded in 2001, and just over 1 million bachelors degrees. There are many more private institutions offering four-year degree programmes - 1,531 against 612 public institutions. Public institutions are generally much bigger than private ones: the University of Texas at Austin, Ohio State, Miami-Dade Community College all enrol close to 50,000 students, and of the next 25 largest institutions the only private school is New York University.

In the biggest of the Ivy League institutions, Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, the extra bulk comes from the professional schools - their undergraduate enrolments are little more than 6,000 apiece. So, given that most people go to their local school - 80 per cent get their higher education in the same state they got their high school training in - the next question is what it costs. Public higher education is cheap. Tuition fees, narrowly speaking, average $3,351 (£2,100) a year at four-year schools and $1,336 at two-year schools. There are variations. The most obvious is that state universities charge a lot more to out-of-state students than to in-state students - something like $10,000 a year more.

Nonetheless, the National Union of Students could rest easy if Britain did go down the American track. An education at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan or any of a dozen terrific public universities would set you back only about £4,000 a year in tuition and other fees. But the average tuition at a private institution is £10,000 a year - $14,600 in 2001. That shows the Harvards and Princetons and Swarthmores and Williamses are outliers at $25,000 a year, and how essential it is to their existence that they have the funds for generous financial aid.

The cheapness of tuition at public institutions is explained by the fact that the US collectively spent £40 billion on the operation of those 2,000 public institutions. It is also explained by something that the optimists on the English side of the Atlantic will flinch at. Staff-to-student ratios are bad; salaries for most people are mediocre; and there is an awful lot of part-time help hired on a casual basis. The average full-time professor gets £45,000 a year and few get more than £100,000. And on the other side of the ledger, it has to be said that, although public higher education is cheap, there is not a lot of government help with the bills - but that's another story.

Alan Ryan is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University.

Next week: Sir Harry Kroto

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