Leader: Global rivalry is good for students

August 6, 2004

Four years after the furore over her rejection by Oxford University and subsequent departure to Harvard, Laura Spence still arouses strong passions in British higher education. Whether she was the villain or the victim, the controversy has influenced the whole direction of the university system.

Ministers were already pressing for a more diverse intake, but it took a human face to catapult the issue up the political agenda. Without her (or someone like her) there might have been no admissions "milestones", no Schwartz inquiry, no Office for Fair Access.

Ms Spence's advice to sixthformers to consider following her lead and cross the Atlantic to study  will be seen by many as adding insult to injury. She is, after all, coming home to study medicine rather than persevering with the US route - something she could have done in the first place at Newcastle's highly rated medical school. But it is hard to disagree with her assertion that she will have more to offer as a doctor after broadening her horizons at Harvard. That is partly an argument for graduate-entry training, but it helps when the undergraduate alternative is a world-class university on another continent.

British undergraduates are still not thick on the ground at US universities, but Ms Spence's example has encouraged more teenagers to investigate the options. A fourfold rise in inquiries to the Fulbright Commission in two years suggests that only US visa restrictions prevented a larger exodus. If a relaxation coincides with the introduction of top-ups in England, many more inquiries are likely to turn into enrolments.

Fortunately for British universities, transatlantic study will remain a minority pursuit. Although top-up fees will narrow the financial gap, it will take a generous support package to bring down the cost of a US degree to British levels. American fees are rising rapidly and few universities have Harvard's resources. Graduate debt in Britain is but nothing compared with the liabilities facing many leaving Ivy League universities.

Nevertheless, the era of global competition is becoming a reality in teaching as well as research. Those who can afford to look abroad will be encouraged to do so when top-ups arrive, and some outstanding undergraduates will be lost to Britain. But universities that place such store by recruiting overseas students can hardly complain when their US counterparts do the same. The new market in higher education (at home and abroad) will force universities to offer the best facilities and top-quality teaching if they are to compete successfully.

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