These days, most British comment on American higher education paints it as the isles of the blessed: the best universities, the best laboratories and libraries, the best paid professors, with needs-blind admission and no Laura Spence cases to boot.
This makes a change from when I was growing up, when comments on American universities were all about bizarre degree subjects, standards that were equivalent to our A level ones, and the awfulness of multiple-choice tests. But it was also a relief to find the US Government's recent report on the future of higher education sounding exactly like one of our own. The list of problems, and the doom-laden warnings, could have appeared in Britain at any time in the past decade. And on one topic of concern we really do seem to be doing better.
The report is from a commission convened by the Secretary of Education. A fashion for short, snappy and completely opaque titles is another thing that we share with the US: this one is A Test of Leadership . However, the similarities go well beyond presentation.
Just like Gordon Brown, who is agonising over the number of Chinese engineers and Indian IT graduates, the Spellings commission is in a panic about the rise of Asian universities. We have begun to take American superiority for granted, they warn, and the "results of this inattention... are sobering... (A) lot of other countries have followed our lead and they are now educating more of their citizens to more advanced levels than we are " (emphasis original).
The commission then moves on to other equally familiar but genuine problems. The first is access. The rates at which American young people from different groups progress to university, and graduate, differ widely by race and by income group, for similar intractable reasons as our own.
Student finance comes next. America has traditionally charged students in publicly funded universities for some of their tuition. In recent years, soaring enrolments have generally led to less state funding per student while the real costs of a college degree have risen fast. College cost is now a major issue for all but the richest families. Our obsession with Harvard University and its generous student support programmes blinds us to this, but it is, quite rightly, a key theme of the commission's report.
It is also an area where the UK has a genuine institutional advantage. I have never understood the complexity of American student aid, and the report, in calling for restructuring, convinced me that I shouldn't even try. There are, it says, "at least" 20 separate programmes run by the federal Government alone. Our Student Loans Company usually hits the press when something goes wrong; but it deserves several rosettes, in conception and reality, for dealing with university fees, maintenance and four different jurisdictions in one integrated system.
However, the area where the commission's report has caused most controversy is the one that has caused British universities the most internal anguish recently: accountability, and specifically a demand for uniform measures that are centrally collated and controlled. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, was a member of the commission but he refused to sign the final report. The accountability proposals seem to have been a key sticking point.
The push to measure quality reflects politicians' concerns over rising costs, bolstered by the familiar complaints that graduates can't read, can't spell and can't add. And, of course, it would be nice to measure the outputs and productivity of our huge and expensive systems. That does not mean we can.
Nothing in the report suggests that the Americans are about to solve the problem. Far more likely is the sort of data collection and paper-trail madness the Quality Assurance Agency has inflicted on us; or, alternatively, the type of perverse incentive that comes from tying accreditation or funding to pass rates or numbers of first-class degrees.
The commission wants a "consumer-friendly information database" that allows students and parents "to weigh and rank comparative institutional performance", and that aggregates "student outcomes", including, eventually, "learning outcomes" in a "secure and flexible format". Well, don't we all, maybe with an infinitely renewable source of environmentally friendly energy thrown in.
Modern university systems are not just huge but diverse. Even in traditional subjects such as maths or French, degrees offered in similar institutions may involve virtually no overlap in content. Many politicians find it impossible to accept that such a system cannot have its "outputs"
measured in a simple, uniform way. Until they do, universities everywhere are likely to suffer nonsense in the name of accountability.
Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London.
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