The Conservative Party draft manifesto promises to enable British universities to "excel in the top league of world academic institutions" by "creating endowment funds" through "privatisation proceeds and asset sales".
This proposal reflects the influence of the US model yet sadly underestimates the degree to which British universities have fallen behind. Even if government funds were used to endow, say, only ten universities - an unlikely and politically unpopular decision - the amount required to compete in the "top league" would be too prohibitive even for the government purse.
Consider the eight Ivy League colleges. Harvard has the largest endowment ($14.2 billion), but others also command immense funds: Yale has $7.1 billion, followed by Princeton ($6.4 billion), Columbia ($3.6 billion), University of Pennsylvania ($3.2 billion), Cornell ($2.8 billion), Dartmouth ($1.7 billion) and Brown ($1.1 billion).
Much of this wealth has come from alumni donations, a tradition that has only recently appeared in Britain. Last year Harvard raised $451 million from private sources; Cornell followed with $341 million. Among the Ivy League, Columbia came third with $284 million, followed by Penn ($0 million), Yale ($224 million) and Princeton ($159 million).
Funds have come not only from alumni but also from the federal government. In this category last year, Harvard and Penn led with $251 million and $247 million respectively, followed by Columbia ($229 million) and Yale ($205 million).
The Conservative Party promises that "in return for endowing an institution, we would require it to provide proper access funds for the most deserving students". Again this follows the US model. Private universities such as Harvard, Penn, Columbia, Yale and others are able to provide open access by subsidising tuition fees for most of their students. At Penn, for example, tuition fees are $98,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree, yet the university provides 65 per cent of its students with scholarships. For first-year students, this support amounts to a particularly generous average award of $22,000. As a consequence, the University of Pennsylvania, like other elite universities, has a diverse student body: 36 per cent of its undergraduates are African-American, Hispanic, Asian or Native American.
Open access, higher staff salaries, more research time, and better facilities are all desperately needed but it seems unlikely that the Conservatives could provide the billions of pounds required for British universities to compete in the "top league". It may be that the race has already been lost and that for a realistic solution to the problems confronting universities, students and staff must look elsewhere.
Research historian, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, US Soapbox, page 18