Watching the row over the appointment of Les Ebdon as director of the Office for Fair Access from the safety of the other side of the Atlantic has been mildly entertaining. As usual, it also reveals a lot about the ways in which American and British politics and higher education do and don’t resemble each other. The American discussion of access has lately been enlivened by Rick Santorum, the most conservative of the remaining contenders for the Republican presidential nomination and a more unabashed populist than Ebdon.
Barack Obama’s wish that every American should have a college education is, says Santorum, the view of a “snob”; in this as in all other matters, the president is out of touch with the views of real Americans. The US is full of decent people who wouldn’t touch higher education with a bargepole, since it means sending their children to be corrupted by liberal professors.
Santorum is a devout Catholic who would like to make abortion illegal, even in cases of rape, incest and severe fetal abnormality, but who is becoming well known for home-schooling his seven children - and reclaiming $38,000 (£23,964) a year from his local school board to defray the expense. The US actually resembles the UK pretty closely on this one: many people think higher education is a waste of time, but always for other people’s children, not their own.
Obama, on the other hand, faces an election that he will win if unemployment drops and will lose if it rises, and he knows as well as anyone that it varies - exactly as it does in the UK - according to educational attainment. It’s currently about 5 per cent for those with a college education, twice that for people who finish high school, and three times that for those who don’t. A plausible inference is that the more highly educated workers there are, the lower the unemployment rate is likely to be.
It is, of course, only one possibility; another is that the more highly educated workers there are, the more underemployed graduates there will be - shelf-stackers with a BA and cab drivers with a PhD, as the cliche has it. A happier possibility is that a more highly educated workforce will be more inventive and productive, and will eliminate many boring and repetitive jobs without reducing the overall demand for labour. That’s what happened to old-fashioned manual labour after the Second World War.
That would be nice, but the hollowing-out of the American “middle class” - the decline of well-paid, modestly skilled unionised work in manufacturing - has been the result of just such a change over the past three decades, in conjunction, of course, with political changes that have allowed owners and managers to take three-quarters of the gains in productivity. The price of rescuing the Detroit car industry is that new workers get paid on recruitment half what they would have been paid 20 years ago. Without a political sea change, it’s hard to believe that pushing up the education level of everyone will do much to reduce inequality and revive the middle class.
Is the American scene the future of UK higher education? More plausibly, influence will flow both ways. One benign effect that the UK system of student finance should soon have on the US is the introduction of income-contingent loans on this side of the Atlantic. Currently, US student loans are more onerous than most forms of borrowing: you can’t clear your student loans by declaring bankruptcy, and like mortgage debt, whatever you don’t pay gets added to what you owe. Obama has said that income-contingent loans are coming; if Congress doesn’t put a spanner in the works, they will make a great deal of difference.
Some attempts to make higher education more intelligible to the student look similar on both sides of the Atlantic. One obvious one is getting universities to produce statistics on graduate employment prospects. The sheer size of the American system suggests just how hard that will be. There is a suspicion that some of the impetus behind the move is to embarrass the for-profit sector, the employment record of which is mysterious but about which horror stories abound. But many community colleges have embarrassing results, so who knows?
In other ways, the American scene is utterly unlike the UK. One of Obama’s initiatives to get more people into higher education is to try to make it easy to compare the cost of attending different colleges or universities. The elite end of the system is fairly easy to comprehend: it is hideously expensive if you earn enough to pay the sticker price, but for anyone whose parents earn less than about £50,000, it is essentially free; if you make £150,000, it’s about £40,000 a year. But what about a little liberal-arts college with notional costs for tuition, board and lodging of about £25,000 a year? Might you get a sports scholarship? Might you get a merit scholarship? Might you negotiate a reduction? Places that depend heavily on income from tuition fees are always balancing the damage done by empty beds against the damage done by charging too little to cover costs. Just like the airlines, they discount in mysterious ways.
American colleges go broke in a way that is unthinkable in the UK. It may or may not be a salutary discipline, but it is extremely rough on faculty and students. That makes colleges more willing to negotiate with parents who can play off one financial-aid office against another. Unless David Willetts’ increasingly Byzantine schemes involve the abolition of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service so that applicants can hold five or six offers and engage in a Dutch auction on fees, I don’t see this reaching the UK any time soon.