We'd like to be America

July 9, 2004

Emulating US university funding schemes could cost UK academia dear, warns Colin Bundy.

"I like to be in America! OK by me in America!" sang wide-eyed Anita in West Side Story .

Similar enthusiasm for the American model - and an equivalent absence of critical distance - has marked recent government pronouncements on higher education.

Take last year's White Paper, The Future of Higher Education . Blending envy and emulation, many of its recommendations amount to ardent mimicry. On research, the first figure in its first chapter compares scientific citations across countries. The US (at 75,000) dwarfs all-comers, with the UK coming in a valiant second (at 15,000). In the US, notes the White Paper, research is concentrated in "relatively few institutions", ergo it proposes "focusing resources more effectively on the best research performers" in "larger, more concentrated units".

The White Paper's determination to concentrate research funding, remark two US commentators, "is explicitly laid out in the shadow of the 800lb American gorilla". And if the corollary is teaching-only - or "non-research-intensive" - institutions, well, advises the White Paper, look at the California state university system, with 23 campuses - its "primary mission to be a teaching-centred comprehensive university rather than to be research-based".

Similarly, to accommodate the Prime Minister's election pledge of 50 per cent participation, the White Paper tweaks the definition of higher education, proposing that expansion take place through two-year foundation courses, for which read US community colleges.

The most breathtaking instance of the White Paper's urge to replicate American solutions is its long-term plan for funding higher education: "The way forward is through endowment." British universities should build endowments and use the income "in much the same way as is done in the United States". The argument proceeds by wistful reference to the endowed wealth of Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities but fails to consider historical and sociological factors that have made private philanthropy such a force for so long in the US.

Let me be clear: there is much to admire in US higher education. The US research university and the "multiversity" state system are among the most successful institutions of the 20th century.

The real irony in the White Paper's copycat approach to US higher education is its deafness to distress signals emanating from that system. Craig Calhoun, president of the US Social Science Research Council, warned recently that a key idea of US higher education for much of the 20th century - that the twin virtues of excellence and openness can simultaneously be achieved - is in the process of unravelling.

This theme was visited by Robert Reich in his Higher Education Policy Institute lecture this year. He described how state governments have cut higher education spending, while the federal government has slashed Pell grants to poor students.

He shocked his British audience by describing the degree of social stratification within higher education in the US. Students from the richest 25 per cent of families are more than ten times likelier to attend college or university than those from the poorest quartile.

As The Times Higher has reported, low and middle-income students are increasingly excluded from US higher education. Three-quarters of students at America's top 146 universities come from the wealthiest quartile, only 3 per cent are from the poorest quartile.

Derek Bok, formerly president of Harvard, last year published Universities in the Marketplace , a sober yet devastating account of how the commercialisation of the campus has warped US higher education.

"Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires," he wrote.

In consequence, "universities show signs of excessive commercialisation in every aspect of their work". Like individuals experimenting with drugs, "campus officials may believe that they can proceed without serious risk", but "the hoped-for profits often fail to materialise, while the damage to academic standards and institutional integrity proves to be all too real".

The pursuit of ephemeral profit leads to the sacrifice of essential values:

"Universities will find it difficult to rebuild the public's trust, regain the faculty's respect, and return to the happier conditions of earlier times."

Perhaps the White Paper's authors should have considered Stephen Sondheim's sardonic lines:

"Everything free in America
"For a small fee in America...
"Lots of new housing with more space
"Lots of doors slamming in our face."

Colin Bundy is director of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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