Leader: America's pyrrhic victory

The US has some outstanding universities, but there is a dark side to its achievements, which the UK would do well to avoid

February 24, 2011

Winning appears to be in the DNA of the American people. Even in the lower tiers of education, it's all about competition: indeed, the president has just moved to reinvigorate his "Race to the Top" initiative.

In his weekly video address last week - delivered from the manufacturing facility of the microchip maker Intel in Portland, Oregon - Barack Obama made clear that to "win the future", the US had "to win the global competition to educate our people". The opponents are clearly China and the rest of East Asia, and the event is the science and technology sprint.

Like the UK's previous Labour government, Mr Obama has one thing on his mind: skills. He wants to ensure that America has "the best trained, best skilled workforce in the world". There are, of course, perils in such thinking. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has cited Rabindranath Tagore's "dire" predictions of nations producing "generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves", and Steven Schwartz, head of Macquarie University, highlighting the dangers of narrow work-focused training, has said that we cannot afford to lose sight of the most valuable skill, wisdom.

Many wonder how wisdom, a rounded view of the world, can be acquired and advanced when the humanities do not even get a look-in. Hit by cuts and closures, US humanities departments and the work they do are in turmoil. The only way they will be able "to get to the top is by hanging on to the coat-tails of their scientist and engineering friends as they go racing by", says Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University.

The crisis in humanities is not the only problem afflicting the US academy. Behind the world-class universities and the "winners" rhetoric is a sector whose reputation has been tarnished by high non-completion rates, out-of-control for-profit providers and deepening class stratification. Although it appears successful, is it a system the UK should wish to emulate?

To some extent, the UK is already headed the same way. A US consultant notes in our cover story that the UK is now where the US found itself 15 years ago. The coalition government is pursuing a strategy of more competition and less public funding for universities, key elements of the US system. But we can avoid America's mistakes if we act deliberately and wisely.

A report for the UK Higher Education Policy Institute this week says that 100 US institutions now charge more than $50,000 (£30,750) a year for tuition fees, room and board, and one US commentator estimates that the cost of a degree at a leading institution will hit $330,000 by 2020. By almost anyone's reckoning, that is unsustainable.

Last year, student debt in the US surpassed the nation's credit-card debt. Much of this is blamed on universities' freedom to set fees, resulting in their becoming "more and more focused on their own institutional needs and institutional missions and less on broader societal needs", says another US commentator.

US higher education has developed from a purely private enterprise into a public-private hybrid, and it is only just waking up to the reality that its private sector needs regulation. As the UK approaches the same point from almost the opposite direction, it would do well to heed some hard-learned lessons from the US and remember that for every winner, there are many losers.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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