Rash arguments for an Ivy League future

October 18, 2012

Terence Kealey's argument that because of the prestige of the US Ivy League institutions, our most selective universities should emulate them by forswearing direct state funding for teaching is wrong, muddled and dangerous ("Declaration of independence", 11 October).

The Ivy League institutions represent a unique phenomenon borne of particular historical and economic circumstances that cannot easily be replicated elsewhere, and their success cannot disguise the declining quality of the US system overall. Part of the reason for this decline has been the way in which prices (tuition) have rocketed above what many families can afford. The root cause of this is the level of tuition charged by the Ivy League, which acts as a "price umbrella" for the rest of the system. This is what would have happened here if ministers had acceded to Russell Group pressure to abolish the fee cap (even in those circumstances, the mission group's students, like most of their Ivy League counterparts, would have continued to benefit from state-subsidised aid in various forms).

This points to the second problem with Kealey's reasoning. In comparing provision across national boundaries, the key level of analysis is not the individual university but the system as a whole. The work of Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford, and others clearly shows that it is the public and heavily subsidised higher education systems - Scandinavia's, the Netherlands', Switzerland's and (historically) the UK's - that offer the best quality and value for money. The leading privatised systems - the US, Japan, South Korea, Brazil - are simply not in the same league (if present funding policies are not reversed, we can expect England to join them).

We do not need to go as far as the US to see what would happen if our most selective universities were to detach themselves from direct state funding for teaching. There are many parallels between the behaviour and impact of the Ivy League institutions and our own so-called "public" schools. Both use indirect state funding to exercise a quite disproportionate (and socially and economically negative) influence on the educational system and society as a whole. Kealey's prescription would ensure that our academy looked like our increasingly dysfunctional school system, with consequences too awful to contemplate.

Our most selective universities already charge fees at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level that exceed those of nearly every institution outside the US private sector. They take the lion's share of public funding for research through the funding and research councils. They have an enormous advantage in funding and reputation over their domestic and (most) international rivals. They have enormous lobbying power with governments of any party. They therefore have little incentive to go down this road. Dream on, Professor.

Roger Brown, Professor of higher education policy, Liverpool Hope University

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