'Ragbag' American system comes in for some stick

January 22, 2009

Few would dispute that the US university system is the strongest in the world, but that did not stop it coming in for robust criticism at the Times Higher Education-Hepi debate in London last week.

Described as "a ragbag" and "inefficient", the American system was picked apart by Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics (pictured), and Roger Brown, professor of higher education at Liverpool Hope University.

The pair debated the degree of marketisation that is beneficial in higher education, including the part played by student fees.

Setting out what he believed was wrong with the American system, Professor Barr said: "The bottom line is that it is not a system, it's a ragbag of different institutions.

"On variable fees, I think the US has got it right: fees are largely a matter for the university, but I think it has gone too far because (they) are completely unregulated.

"If you have a genuinely competitive market, you don't need to regulate prices."

Professor Barr said that higher education in the US was competitive, particularly in terms of teaching, but in some areas, for example the Ivy League institutions, universities were selling not only access to teaching, but also access to a network of peers.

"In this latter respect, (they) have an element of monopoly power. That, in my view, is why the Ivy League (universities) are able to charge such extraordinarily high fees ... The point is ... the price is inefficiently high."

Professor Barr was also critical of the US student loan system.

"There is a lot of money going to widening participation, but it is fragmented and ... incredibly complex: if you've ever got a boring three months you want to fill, try to understand the US system of student support," he said.

Professor Brown said that the system exhibited the strengths of marketisation, but also "what can happen when the market gets out of control.

"We ought to be very cautious in the UK about going any further down the marketisation route."

He added: "We shouldn't pretend to students that higher education isn't a risky business.

"I'm worried that, in a few years' time, any student who does not get an upper second-class degree may take their university to court."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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