Let's not play lottery

January 10, 2003

Americans do indeed "get what they pay for", as Peter Andras and Bruce Charlton state with regard to elite teaching colleges ("The student purse can save us from the mediocre", THES , January 3).

The problem is that what you can't pay for, you don't get. True, better-endowed US private universities have lots of scholarships for less well-off students, but these are a drop in the ocean and you usually have to be well educated to get there in the first place.

There are excellent public universities, too - although apparently not in Andras and Charlton's league - but their provision is a geographical and social lottery.

When I came to Britain from the US in the 1960s, what impressed me most was that centralised state funding meant that opportunities were distributed far more equitably here even if there were not enough of them. But the expansion of the UK university system has obviously created severe financial strains.

Further reform must maintain a balance between redistributive fairness and operational devolution. However, the former is unfairly caricatured as the dead hand of central control rather than as a basic condition for the creative empowerment of students and staff. A balance can be guaranteed by extensive redistributive state funding.

We need to be levelling up, not leaving higher education to the lottery of pre-existing life chances. The US example is a slippery slope.

Phil Cerny
University of Manchester

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