Learn lessons from underneath the Ivy League

The UK's higher education system must become "less precious" and emulate the "messier" half of the US model if it wants to succeed, a leading scholar has argued in an analysis of the policy errors affecting the sector.

March 1, 2012

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford, says that the UK is too fixated on copying the higher-profile elements of US provision, such as the Ivy League universities.

Writing in a paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute, Sir David says that the UK must look at how the "other half" of students in the US complete courses: over longer time frames as mature students; by switching between institutions; by dipping in and out of work; and through a mixture of full- and part-time study.

The paper is an extension of his argument - made in a conference speech in December to the Society for Research into Higher Education - that the UK sector was making a series of "category mistakes".

These errors, he argues, include a misguided obsession with comparing individual university performance, a failure to consider further and higher education as two sides of the same coin, and the "myth" that research concentration is needed.

Another problem is the confusion between the "big problem" of widening participation and the "comparatively tiny problem" of fair access to a few highly selective universities, he says, which has led to "empirically weak and socially patronising conclusions" in policy debates.

Discussing the US approach to flexible provision and lifelong learning, he warns that "conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination" is holding the UK back from realising such approaches, exemplified by the "principal failure" to make credit transfer work.

He says the success of flexible provision in the US meant that "about 60 per cent of the population has a serious experience of tertiary study, and in popular culture 'college' is positively referenced and valued".

But in the UK, he argues, policy, funding and public perceptions of higher education look "to lock in all of the features of the wrong half" of US provision.

"The unsustainable mess we have argued our way into about fees is absolutely characteristic of this," he says.


You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

sitting by statue

Institutions told they have a ‘culture of excluding postgraduates’ in wake of damning study

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate