Notes on a US scandal, prize plans and UK 'sticker shock'

American higher education economist advocates full-fee discounts in England. John Morgan reports

March 31, 2011

The president of Northwestern University admits that a few of his assumptions about higher education were shattered when his institution made global headlines over a "live sex show" for students featuring an object that was "essentially a motorised phallus".

"Just when you think you've seen it all, you learn you haven't," Morton Schapiro, president of the Chicago-based institution, told Times Higher Education. "I thought there was nothing left to surprise me - that surprised me. That is a new one for me."

The scandal broke after J. Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern, concluded a class on human sexuality. He offered students the option of attending an extracurricular session in the lecture hall and warned that some might find the content offensive. About 100 students stayed.

There followed a theoretical discussion of the female orgasm demonstrated in practical terms, according to reports, by a naked woman allowing her fiancé "to penetrate her with a device that looks like a machine-powered saw with a phallic object instead of a blade".

Amid frenzied media interest, the university launched an inquiry into the incident, which has yet to report.

Professor Schapiro said he recently had "a very interesting meeting with a group of faculty and the (university) trustees about the rights and responsibilities of tenure".

"People talk a lot about the rights of tenure, about protecting freedom of speech. There is actually a question about responsibilities," he said.

Hinting at possible further action, he said: "We are moving along trying to learn about any laws that may have been broken."

He added: "For me, it is relevant that it was all done after class. It is also relevant that it happened under the auspices of a professor and a classroom."

Professor Schapiro, who was in London as part of a European visit to meet Northwestern alumni and sector leaders, is a leading higher education economist and has taken a keen interest in the funding transformation in England's academy.

One key problem he sees is the "sticker shock" for students and parents caused by the sudden trebling of fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year from 2012.

And compared with US institutions in the elite Colleges of Further and Higher Education (Cofhe) group, he said English universities' plans for fee discounts and bursaries for poor students "only kick in at a very low income" and do not offer large enough discounts.

While the "sticker price" in the US could be about $50,000 (£31,312) a year, students know that "unless your parents earn somewhere north of $250,000 a year, you're going to get a discount".

"About a quarter of kids at Cofhe schools don't pay anything," Professor Schapiro said, suggesting that the biggest discounts in England "should be £9,000 off".

As for Northwestern itself, Professor Schapiro has ambitious plans for a tenfold increase in its financial aid packages for overseas students, taking spending from $250,000 a year to $2.5 million to attract "the best and the brightest".

Northwestern, a private research university, has a $7 billion endowment fund and one of its economists, Dale Mortensen, won a Nobel prize in 2010.

The institution's star attractions include the Kellogg School of Management and the Medill School of Journalism.

But Professor Schapiro wants to boost the university's external profile. "There is confusion about location, confusion about brand," he said. "The most familiar part of Northwestern is the Kellogg School, but there's a lack of association between Kellogg and Northwestern."

Professor Schapiro was hopeful that this could be remedied by a change in marketing and further academic achievement, particularly in economics and chemistry.

"My guess is that over the next five years we are going to have a number of additional Nobel prizes. That is going to shine a spotlight on us. I'd rather that shine a spotlight on us than the scandal you alluded to," he said.

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