Community may be impoverished if all individuals pay more

Why are Americans happier to pay fees than Britons? Cary Cooper looks at the possible consequences of adopting their model here

October 14, 2010

Credit: Andy Bunday

Why is there such reluctance on the part of Britain's prospective students, parents and the public more generally about paying for higher education, compared with their counterparts in the US?

Although doing a degree in the US can be enormously expensive, you rarely hear an American student complain about tuition costs. Of course, the US has always had a free market in higher education, as it has in many other aspects of society. Even state-funded universities have always charged fees, although in many cases they are substantially lower than those of their private counterparts. So what could explain these differences in attitude?

First, in a strongly immigrant culture such as the US, it is considered a "privilege" to go to university, not a "right". The intrinsic expectation is that you will pay for this privilege. Americans are used to paying for all sorts of services that would be anathema to people in the UK, such as healthcare, with an underlying philosophy that such things are the responsibility of the individual.

Second, US universities are organised differently from UK universities, and students can take as many years as they like to complete their degrees. In the UK, courses are not ordinarily unit-based, so individuals cannot accumulate their degree qualifications over time, dipping in and out of education as their circumstances change. In the US, students tend to work while studying. Indeed, many US university facilities are substantially run by students, with the institution hiring students to work in campus cafes and restaurants, in the library and in office roles. The US mindset is that individuals should help fund their education.

In the UK, a very different mindset and an intrinsic inflexibility in higher education - more rigid curriculum pathways, timelines and administrative systems - make it difficult for students to engage in both paid work and study.

Third, it is still the case that most UK students go to a university outside their home town, which is part of a culture that encourages independence and personal development. This is not the case in the US: if you go to a university in another state, you pay a substantial tuition premium, so students tend to study near home.

Because they tend to live, work and study in the same town or city where they were raised, US students will know the employment opportunities in their community, whereas UK students, outside the major urban areas, have fewer opportunities to find paid work, or to return to their parents' homes if times get financially difficult.

This difference in attitude raises another key issue. Students are treated more like commodities in the US system and there is less "community building" in educational institutions, which on balance are much larger, and in many cases more anonymous, than in the UK.

British universities are generally much smaller than their US counterparts and accommodate students from age 18 for three or four years continuously. This allows them to build what Thomas Jefferson described, when he created the University of Virginia, as an "academical community".

There would be a significant trade-off in the move towards a US model in which students would begin to pay substantially more, by working and studying at the same time and following more flexible modules and degree programmes. This could lead to greater acceptance of higher tuition fees (if students perceive their courses to be value for money, of course), but it could damage the unique quality of the academic communities that many institutions have painstakingly built with students.

If the UK were to move towards greater flexibility, with more ubiquitous credit-based systems, more use of technology and online teaching, supporting some students with jobs on campus and the like, the culture change would be dramatic.

But even if there were consensus about taking this direction, I fear that we lack the management expertise and the financial resources to engage in radical change on this scale. We would need a mindset change among academics, a new breed of experienced senior university manager (as opposed to administrator), substantial funds to invest in new technology, a different industrial-relations climate and a radical change in existing roles and structures within a university.

As times will be difficult for the sector over the next decade, we need to explore all our options. This period also provides us with an opportunity to think differently about what we do and how we do it. As the old adage goes: "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got."

We need to be more imaginative about the future. As Albert Einstein once said: "Your imagination is the preview to life's coming attractions."

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