Leader: Making no plans for Nigel

The UK and California both face a shortfall of university places, but at least snobbery isn't making things worse across the pond

August 19, 2010

If you are in a hole, it is always reassuring to be in good company. This summer, as the UK academy prepares to disappoint as many as 200,000 potential undergraduates (depending on whose guesstimates you care to believe) owing to a lack of places, across the Atlantic, California is also said to be turning away more than 100,000 qualified students for whom there is no room in the public higher education sector.

The answer to California's woes seems to lie with the community colleges, which are receiving a $2.6 billion (£1.7 billion) fillip from the Obama administration. These bodies provide basic skills education, workforce training and courses that prepare students for the US' four-year universities. Martha Kanter, President Obama's undersecretary of education and a former community college leader herself, is a passionate advocate of the sector.

These colleges roughly equate to the UK's non-sixth-form further education colleges, from which, in theory, students can progress to university: however, in practice, it is not common.

Someone taking a keen interest in the California system is David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who is off to the Golden State next month on a fact-finding mission. Mr Willetts is also a big fan of private provision: he recently granted BPP university college status. But he will be disappointed if he thinks this will rescue the government from negative headlines in the coming weeks.

Carl Lygo, BPP's chief executive, says the numbers it will accept through clearing will be measured in hundreds, not thousands. "We are not going to be the saviour of the government and take in 50,000 students," he said.

In the US, where the private higher education system is more developed, the for- profits are taking a bashing in Congressional hearings, with some unsavoury practices coming to light. There is no such problem in the UK, but keeping a weather eye on a fledgling area now could save tears later.

Regulations for keeping the system in check could do with tightening, especially in regard to degree-awarding powers. These are overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency and require revisiting only every six years. This caused some consternation when a subsidiary of US for-profit university provider Apollo took over BPP last year, as the latter had been granted the ability to award its own degrees in 2007.

In the UK, where many bizarrely consider it wrong to want to educate more of the population to a higher level, calls to limit the number of young people going to university are met by howls of protest over the lack of places. This may seem contradictory, but what it's really about is class. What some, especially the right-wing press, are trying very hard not to say is that a decent higher education is a privilege that should not be extended to hoi polloi because they may deny middle-class pupils their rightful place at university.

In the US, things happily are different. "Because we've had mass higher education for 50 years, there is an acceptance by the population that it is important and isn't just for the elite," says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Perhaps there's hope for us yet.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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