Leader: Not such a superpower after all

It is folly to emulate a US higher education system that, according to OECD figures, is failing so many of its young citizens

September 15, 2011

The US is always held up as an example of a great higher education system. It dominates all the global university rankings and is seen as a big success story, one that other nations are encouraged to emulate.

But the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development tell a different tale. Its universities may be the best, but they are not serving the American people well.

Other countries have been far more successful in educating a greater proportion of their population, and far more efficiently.

In fact, over the past 15 years, more than a dozen countries have overtaken the US in terms of the percentage of people completing a degree. The US still leads in one respect, however: it is the most expensive higher education system by a long shot, spending $26,908 per student, excluding research.

One of the more successful countries is the UK: extraordinarily efficient in comparison with the US, investing 1.2 per cent in higher education as a share of national wealth (compared with the US's 2.7 per cent). This is, however, already a drop of 0.1 per cent on the previous year and well below the OECD average of 1.5 per cent. Crucially, though, the data were gathered before the latest cuts, the effects of which won't be evident for some time.

Unfortunately, with our tripling of tuition fees and the shifting of the burden from state to the individual, it is the US trajectory that the UK seems to be following - one that evidence shows is unwise. As massive tuition-fee increases and poor state support in the US take their toll, graduation rates have fallen well behind those of most other industrialised nations.

It is the young who are starting to paint a very different global landscape. Participation in higher education in the US has not increased at the same rate as in other countries. It had a 12.9 per cent global share of new entrants into higher education in 2009, but in China the figure was 36.6 per cent, way ahead of everyone else. President Barack Obama's ambition for America to lead the world in the proportion of graduates by 2020 looks increasingly unlikely.

This is a wake-up call for the UK. We must ensure that a university education is not priced out of the reach of ordinary people, or we risk creating an unskilled section of society with no hope. To remain globally competitive we must widen participation (and the evidence is that the increase in numbers of graduates worldwide is generally not affecting the earning premium for those with a degree, although there was a slight dip in the UK).

Unfortunately, all this comes as the £143 million a year widening participation premium provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England appears to be in jeopardy because of changes to teaching funding.

If this goes, the cost of broadening access would have to be borne by individual institutions and the new universities would be the hardest hit. As we enrol the first truly post-92 generation, it is here that we could make an important change. If we genuinely want to increase participation for the sake of our country's future and that of our young people, a first step would be to erase the snobbishness that underlies views of old and new universities.

Nearly 20 years on, it is a shameful anachronism that is holding us back and has no place in a changing world order.


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