Lessons from the American model - 'let things run a bit rather than try to control them from the centre'

December 17, 1999

Key members of United Kingdom higher education are absorbing the entrepreneurial ways of the United States. Tony Tysome reports

Politicians, civil servants and institutional heads are once again seeking American solutions to British problems. Massachusetts Institute of Technology is bringing a kind of "can-do" glamour to Cambridge University with its joint venture in entrepreneurship, for instance.

Many British higher education leaders and experts see this as a natural outlook for a government hoping to steer its economy into a healthy state. Sir John Daniel, vice-chancellor of the Open University, which this year launched the Open University of the United States, said: "It appears to us that the American higher education system has powered away like the American economy. It has proved to us that things we used to be snooty about, like the introduction of tuition fees, no longer apply."

Clive Booth, former vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, puts the attraction down to the US higher education system being "the most successful in the world" - an achievement made easier by the fact that it is "highly entrepreneurial" and "surprisingly effective at levering in more money both from public and private sources".

In the absence of national fee levels or academic pay scales, American institutions "can take risks on who they hire and how much they pay, which is in tune with the prevailing entrepreneurial structure of the American economy," he said.

Sheldon Steinbach, vice-president of the American Council on Education, believes the interest in American higher education has a lot to do with political relationships at the top.

"Considering the kind of relationship that exists between Blair and Clinton in terms of image and a youthful outlook towards the 21st century, I think our influence is bound to percolate down," he said.

British politicians and officials are interested in the US community college system, which has helped create participation rates that are "the envy of the world", with up to 60 per cent of the population in some form of higher education. The government has confirmed that it is planning to introduce an associate degree - the key qualification delivered by American community colleges.

The government is also interested in how American institutions manage to attract vast sums of private funding. Last year the sector received $19 billion in charitable giving. This, Mr Steinbach feels, is largely down to a strong sense of ownership felt by alumni, who are relatively easily persuaded to give generously when they get into well-paid jobs.

Such is the level of interest that government officials accompanied vice-chancellors and policy chiefs from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals on a visit to the University of Wisconsin last month.

The party was led by Howard Newby, CVCP president and vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, who registered his interest in the Wisconsin system of networked institutions in a landmark paper he wrote in March on the future of higher education. Wisconsin provides a possible model for a post-Dearing restructure of British higher education, which is likely to be necessary in the near future, Professor Newby argues.

"We have a kind of mass higher education system that is squeezed into an elite system. We need models for change," he said.

Alan Wilson, vice-chancellor of Leeds University, joined a delegation of vice-chancellors and officials in a visit to a wide range of American institutions in November 1998 to look at technology transfer. He concluded that a tradition of giving academics nine-month contracts so they have time to work as consultants or set up their own spin-off businesses gives the US the edge in terms of technology transfer and benefits for the economy.

"It creates a culture of expectation that academics will work in industry and it becomes a respectable thing to do. Here, that is still seen as second-grade work," he said.

According to Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute, who went on the Wisconsin trip, it may be "fairly obvious that we are moving down the American route", but Britain still has a long way to go to achieve the kind of culture change necessary to accept everything that goes with the American model.

"The Americans accept that their system is all about access. But they have completion and drop-out rates that would make our ministers weep. That is the price they are prepared to pay to have such a high proportion of their population in higher education," he said.

Sir John also warns we should be aware that the American system is itself under review.

"The Americans are asking themselves a lot of questions. There is a widening realisation that the fabric of legislation and the institutional styles they have created may not be appropriate," he said.

But Britain still has at least one important lesson to learn from America: that it is better to "let things run a bit" than try to control them from the centre, he adds.

"At the end of the day, the Americans do have a more free-flowing system than ours. But you cannot control and regulate the British system into becoming an American system. You must free it up a bit and let it get on with it."

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