Over there

Alan Ryan on the benefits of emigration for the UK’s huddled student masses

August 23, 2012

This is the time of year when British university applicants discover that they have - or have not - got their grades, have done better than predicted and wish they had applied elsewhere, or resign themselves to hunting for a slot in clearing. On the other side, admissions officers pray hard that they’ve got their numbers right. At £9,000 a pop, the lost fees of students who have not been recruited are no joke and nor are the penalties for over-recruitment. Meanwhile, the usual chorus sings “fings ain’t what they used t’be” and bemoans the collapse of academic standards. Whether it is a kindness to look ahead to the next application round is debat-able, but it may be the moment to preach the benefits of emigration.

To begin at the mercenary end, you can get an excellent undergraduate education outside the UK for vastly less than you would pay at home. For anyone with their sights set on the US, it is cheaper to get the best education that the country has to offer than a less good education: the universities of Princeton, Yale and Harvard have lots of money to lavish on overseas students. It is only recently that they have treated such applicants the same way as American ones, but the effect has been astonishing. Instead of facing an annual bill of £35,000 for tuition, board and lodging, books and travel, students whose families earn less than $60,000 (around £37,000) a year get the lot for free. Those whose families earn twice that get their tuition fees paid ($38,000) and something towards their other costs. The benefits don’t stop there: anyone with interesting ideas for summer research projects will find the university quick to fund them, plus administrators waiting to help them make connections with people they want to work with. The same is true of the non-Ivy League competition - Stanford University, for instance. Moreover, although the Ivy League doesn’t give athletics scholarships, many other places do: with decent A levels and a low enough handicap, you may find Stanford wanting to discover if you are the next Tiger Woods.

Many European universities are both cheap and teach many courses in English. They don’t have the resources of the Ivy League, however, and even if lectures are in English, a monoglot student won’t have as rich a social life as someone fluent in foreign languages. Students wandering the globe during their gap years get a very long way with the home-made Esperanto with which they and their peers from many different countries communicate in any popular city in the developing world, but its range is limited.

The monoglot should head for the US, not because it is less culturally alien than Europe, but because it is more so. For instance, American religiosity permeates everything and is intellectually unfathomable: the more enthusiastic the professed evangelical, the less likely he or she is to know anything about the contents of the Bible. The misnamed Bible Belt deplores same-sex marriage but has higher divorce and illegitimacy rates than the secular Northeastern US. The fact that Mormonism has survived for almost two centuries without being mocked into extinction astonishes foreigners. Perhaps it should not. Mormonism may be like Freemasonry: a means of putting businesspeople in touch with each other. (And who knows what Freemasons believe qua Freemasons?)

Politics is equally unfathomable. J.K. Galbraith observed 60 years ago that the US practises socialism for the better-off while imposing the full rigour of market relationships on the working class - “the hard-working middle class” in American politics-speak - and this is truer than ever. Yet the white working-class male consistently votes against his own economic interests - but no doubt not against all sorts of other interests.

British students venturing into the US may also see the virtues of Canada. Most Americans are unaware that the country has two land frontiers. They think the US is beset with immigrants trying to sneak across the border. Not from Canada. They see the boom and bust of banking and housing finance as an inevitable consequence of running a prosperous capitalist economy. Not in Canada. Is a “single-payer” healthcare system a long step towards totalitarian socialism? Not in Canada. It has a conservative government that is well to the left of Obama’s Democratic administration, yet Obama is demonised as a closet socialist by his American opponents.

So, why spend four years getting a university education in this strange country? The educational argument is decisive. Sir Peter Lampl seems to have come to the same conclusion: after years of trying to get UK state pupils into Oxbridge, he now thinks they should go to Yale. In spite of attempts to broaden the education provided to clever students by “good” secondary schools, the British system - the non-Scottish system - concentrates attention on a narrow syllabus defined by A levels. Its virtue is that students leave secondary school ready for degree-level work. Its drawback is that it can funnel students into courses in which they have little real interest, but from which they cannot opt out for lack of the qualifications to do anything else.

The virtue of the US system is that the first two years of general education provide the opportunity to discover what you really want to study - and what you’d like to do alongside whatever you choose to major in. If you find that you really want to do exactly what you would have done in the UK, you can take graduate classes as the icing on the cake. Conversely, if you are an American who has had quite enough general education by the age of 18 and desperately wants to study, say, physics, physics and more physics, you should head in this direction - although how you are to pay for it is another question entirely.

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