Our universities are sinking into nationalised mediocrity and students could soon be joining academics fleeing to the US, says Michael Burleigh
Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now begins with the world-weary Captain Willard prising apart the hotel blinds on his first morning back in Vietnam. "Shit. Saigon," he murmurs. Willard came to mind when four years ago I awoke at 2am in a British university town. Outside there was drunken pandemonium worthy of Breughel - neon, rain, vomit and violence.
Stanford University is in California's Silicon Valley. Its campus covers 2,300 acres in a eucalyptus forest. The palm trees are more striking: there are hundreds of them, imported, rumour has it, at $35,000 (£22,250) a time. In the distance I can see the university's linear particle accelerator.
This sort of kit and setting are possible with a capital endowment of $8.5 billion. In 2002 alone, gifts to the university amounted to $454 million.
Money like this enables Stanford to buy in any number of academic superstars. There are several Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinners. My colleagues here look and act like serious professional people rather than a fractious anarchistic rabble. Why wouldn't they, since many are on salary packages of $200,000 a year?
The resentful Dave Sparts of British academia will protest that a major private university such as Stanford is inegalitarian. Yes it is, in that many of the people I have worked with in Britain would never get an interview, let alone a job or tenure here. But no doubt he will mean that students have to pay $45,000 a year for the privilege of a degree that could propel their earning power into the stratosphere. All graduate students not only study here gratis (and there are 7,000 of them) but they receive $17,500 pocket money too. Forty per cent of the 6,000 undergraduates either pay nothing or receive affordable loans and work-study packages. The admissions system is almost obsessively fair, with a lot of aggressive outreach to America's sometimes indifferent schools.
In what may be the ultimate embarrassment to Britain's ailing system, Stanford is planning to diversify its already polyglot student body by extending free tuition to nearly half of the 15 per cent or more European students it is planning to recruit in coming decades. This means that your child could receive a world-class education at one of the US's top three institutions without paying a penny.
Meanwhile, British academics struggle on in dingy surroundings for pay that compares unfavourably with that of a Tube driver. The quality of candidates for academic posts in the UK is not what it was. I have worked in places where my colleagues have behaved like a cell of the Socialist Workers'
Party, hopelessly irrelevant to the Britain of Tony Blair, as they prate on about feminist "issues" in early modern witchcraft or the redeeming features of the German Democratic Republic.
British academics are being crushed by assessments of their research and teaching, the assessments being regarded as a joke by my US colleagues.
There was no resistance to the introduction of these Stalinist measures, least of all from the vice-chancellors, all eager for their CBEs and knighthoods, their reward for presiding over the destruction of a once universally admired university system.
The research assessment exercise is designed to establish the "international significance" of what British scholars publish. To aid this process, the subject panels - all, of course, appointed to reflect the full dismal range of British HE - draw on the views of foreign experts. One of those whose views were recently sought is notorious among other German scholars for having published virtually nothing.
The teaching assessment is also ludicrous. I remember inviting a leading assessor to give a guest lecture to one of my classes on a subject on which he was an authority. Since he gave one of the most inept lectures I have heard in my life, it is probably best that he sticks to assessing how to assess other people.
Gimcrack front organisations, Universities UK and the like, pump out hollow propaganda about the marvels of British higher education. It ceases to convince. People in the US are too polite to criticise British universities explicitly, but they notice the flood of good scholars that has crossed the Atlantic, and they openly wonder about the nonchalant way in which British universities give second or third-rate people posts with tenure. Here, even when rigorous departmental selection procedures have been exhausted, two super-committees might still veto an appointment. Much more worrying still for Britain is the prospect that decent students might just follow their professors across the Atlantic, leaving British universities to sink further into nationalised mediocrity.
Michael Burleigh is Kratter visiting professor in history, Stanford University. This is an edited version of an article in this month's Literary Review.