Transatlantic exchange

UK universities are regularly exhorted to learn from the US, but we can teach them, too, writes Matthew Partridge

October 14, 2010

In its bullishness to reform higher education, the government is eager for UK universities to learn lessons from abroad.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, seems especially keen on aspects of US higher education, praising its liberal-arts colleges and its emphasis on student potential in university admissions. Indeed, his call for unsuccessful university applicants to improve their chances of winning a place by doing voluntary work in their gap year can be seen as an attempt to emulate the US, where charitable work is in effect a requirement for entry into the top institutions.

But the US does not hold all the answers. Despite their world-class institutions, many Americans think their current system is unsustainable. Conservatives complain about falling standards, high dropout rates and lack of intellectual diversity in humanities departments; those on the centre and left of centre bemoan the extent to which parental income determines access to elite institutions. There is also a broad consensus that the average cost of tuition at private four-year colleges is unsustainable.

Many of the reforms proposed would increase the distance between the US and the UK systems. For instance, a number of conservative educational foundations, such as the Center for the American University, want to further broaden the already broad undergraduate curriculum, or devote a large part of it to discussing a large number of "great books". Similarly, Harvard University scholar Louis Menand wants to replace subject-based academic departments with groups of academics clustered around "major themes and challenges".

Instead of implementing such ideas, US universities may be better off adopting elements of the UK system. Allowing students to focus on a subject or two earlier in their time at university would allow them to gain more depth of knowledge and thus reduce the need for postgraduate study. It would also mean that staff waste less time teaching mandatory introductory courses for those who have little interest in their disciplines. And in admissions, giving more weight to high school grades and less to extracurricular activities would cut the need for remedial teaching.

US institutions could also slash spending on non-academic areas such as sports facilities and teams. How ironic it is that a country deeply suspicious of government intervention in some areas is happy for universities to devote huge resources to subsidising the multimillion-dollar professional sports industry by training their players free of charge. While state governments shrink research budgets and hike tuition fees, even the most modest of cuts to the budgets of university sports teams generate outrage and protests from alumni and students.

It is not only at the undergraduate level that the US can learn from the UK. The US has a strong free-speech culture, but UK universities seem more tolerant of scholarly iconoclasm. Although Lawrence Summers' comments about gender and science may have been dubious, the furore unleashed by his 2005 speech, which led to his resignation as president of Harvard the following year, would be unthinkable here. Academic free speech has financial implications because much of the opposition to the end of tenure in the US is driven by fears that without it, staff on both sides of the political spectrum will be fired for expressing unpopular views.

The UK also sets the agenda in areas where one might expect the US to be pre-eminent. Although the idea of demonstrating the economic impact of scientific research has led to protests from UK academics, Britain is acknowledged to be ahead of other major economies in measuring such impact and grasping that the concept is more sophisticated than simply generating revenue from patent royalties and spin-off companies. Indeed, the latest attempt by the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy to measure the impact of research, announced in July, explicitly incorporates many techniques developed by UK funding bodies.

UK institutions should not be complacent and can certainly learn from the US. However, they already do much that is excellent and could give the Americans a lesson or two.

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