A tip from Florida on college taxes

October 18, 1996

One of Mrs Thatcher's famous remarks was that society did not exist. But if she could have invented a society it would no doubt have been Miami - it has no income tax, grand opulence and more film queues per square foot than any of the other United States cities that lay claim to the title of Hollywood's successor.

I am in Miami for the annual convention of US community college trustees - governors of colleges in our terms - about 2,000 of them in fact, braving the near-hurricane winds and torrential rains to contemplate "widening access", this year's convention theme.

Inevitably the 50 or so British delegates spend their time comparing their own and the US education systems, and in the run-up to elections in both countries, the politics that dominate them. The similarities are striking.

The first Dole versus Clinton television debate may have been a bland affair but the advertising campaign is no-holds-barred stuff. Dole's main attack is to accuse Clinton of being a closet liberal, no doubt, Premier John Major will label Tony Blair a closet socialist.

In both countries education is the election theme. While our parties will compete on who can provide best value for money, the Americans have a phrase which means the same but is much more graphic - who will achieve more "bangs for bucks". Put another way the politicians are challenging the educators to serve more students for the same or less money. In both countries the educators know that the answer lies in new technology, but precisely how, when and where is less than clear.

What we do know is that unless the colleges rise to the challenge, commercial companies - who have already created an "edutainment" industry - will crack the nut and spread learning to all at cheap rates and in the comfort of their own homes. In Florida - the Disney state - you can hear college principals talk of the "mighty mouse". They know that their real competition is not with each other but with companies, like Disney, which are developing packages for the cybercollege of the near future.

All this has three practical effects we in Britain ignore at our peril. First, colleges have to be attractive, comfortable, and most of all simple to access. The staple fare of US colleges is the two-year associate degree programme, which links with a further two years in the university system.

Its curriculum is clear, its relevance undoubted and for these reasons it stands more chance of success than our maze of courses and plethora of examination bodies and curriculum agencies.

Second, American trustees have no doubt about why they are there - they represent the community and lobby government. Most colleges employ a lobbyist and the Association of Community College Trustees has the ear of Washington.

Third, local taxes are raised for colleges to supplement substantial donations. But before the tax is raised a referendum is taken to see if the community wants its tax dollars spent on bigger and better colleges. The most sobering fact of the week is that the Florida colleges won such a referendum recently (producing $200 million). Would the British electorate vote to be taxed to save our colleges?

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors of the City of Bristol College.

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