Britain and America

My US college experience shows fees work
Camilla Cavendish

If students pay they can expect more of their universities. But we mustn’t let prices spiral to Ivy League extremes

I thank my lucky stars that I was able to go to great universities on someone else’s money. I acquired friends, perspectives and certificates that transformed my life. The only things I regret are the things I didn’t do. I walked out of the audition for Equus rather than agree to pretend to be a table. I didn’t go to a dodgy ball with a bloke who is now a celeb. I didn’t learn as much as I should have. I got a good first degree despite having shamelessly used the library as an extension of my social life. I thank my parents for their support. But it was free for me.

I didn’t complain, at Oxford, about the philosophy don who rarely spoke and fell asleep during a tutorial. I didn’t complain about the economics tutor who often left notes reading “gone to Greece” (to advise the Government) on his door. Perhaps I might, had I been paying. Peter Sinclair, an economics tutor with a genius and passion for teaching, later moved to Birmingham, which gave him a chair. Research trumps teaching because research pays.

What if teaching paid? Arriving at Harvard after Oxford, I got a shock. The students thought it perfectly normal to load up with debt. As a result, their work ethic was daunting. I was a graduate student, but also took undergraduate courses, including one taught by Amartya Sen — not a man to sleep on the job. As a teaching assistant I worked flat out just to read ahead of my own students and prepare their weekly session. If I didn’t know my stuff, they were merciless.

My own grades were lamentable. I lost marks for not turning up to lectures. The same was true at Stanford, where I was an undergraduate for a semester. The days I had hoped would be filled with surfing were filled with lectures. An hour from the beach, the library was packed. The lectures I went to on civil rights were stunning. So were those on the drier subject of game theory.

It is a strong argument for tuition fees that they make universities more responsive to students. We need that. Recent graduates from Bristol and Sussex tell me that they were underwhelmed by lack of rigour. None was writing more than two essays a week; none was getting more than two hours of “contact time” with professors. By contrast Buckingham, the independent university, offers eight hours of contact time a week.

Fees have already prompted students to demand more. There have been student protests at Bristol, Sussex and Manchester over cuts in teaching hours, class sizes and poor facilities. Eventually, uncapped tuition fees could spur the demise of worthless courses that are being mis-sold to students — including the student I once mentored from the University of Westminster, who had almost no idea what her course was about and no continuity of teaching.

Lord Browne of Madingley believes that tuition fees are the way to maintain world-class universities. He is probably right. Our institutions are living in limbo, nominally independent but virtually a nationalised industry. The State halved the funding per student between 1979 and 1997, with barely a peep from vice-chancellors. Then it bribed them to take students from “deprived” postcodes, diluting the principle of admission on merit. Currently, vice-chancellors are caught between capped tuition fees and rising costs, with falling quality.

In theory, the tuition fees road leads to a huge prize. The US has the freest higher education market in the world and the best universities, which attract the best minds to teach. It also performs well on access for the poor. Europe shows the dangers of leaving universities in the embrace of the State. You don’t find people flocking to Heidelberg, or Bologna. Staff: student ratios are far higher in the US. British universities are half-free and half-not. If we get our experiment right, it could be very good for them.

But will it be good for students? The experiment we have embarked on is traumatic for the first generation, separated from their predecessors by a few years and tens of thousands of pounds. It is imperative, if the Browne reforms go ahead, that no one who ought to study is deterred by price.

It is not yet clear whether Britain can manage this.

The poor are already cushioned under the current grants system and will remain so. But an increase in fees, warns the Institute of Fiscal Studies, could just be another tax on the squeezed middle if they are not set at the right level. Only if fees rise to at least £7,000 will the universities begin to raise money to cover their costs. Less, and it’s just a bonus for the Exchequer. And Vince Cable’s apparent determination to charge the better-off more than the cost of their education simply dilutes the principle that you pay for what you get.

Many American universities offer places on a needs-blind basis — according to ability, not wherewithal. But while the University of Oxford aspires to build an endowment fund similar to Harvard’s, it is £10 billion behind. It will take time for British fundraising to become as sophisticated as America’s, and for British alumni to realise they are no longer being asked to subsidise the State but education. Financial aid offices at American colleges are sophisticated places tailoring packages to each individual — from the tapered loan through to providing summer jobs on campus.

There is going to be an uncomfortable time gap between the state-run system and a free market. It is vital that universities do not dumb down to attract students, skew grades as bribes, or underreport drop-out rates. We will need tax breaks on donations to build enough bursaries.

Lord Browne makes a powerful case that fees drive up quality. America is a good example. But does the quality justify the fees? The student experience is not good enough yet.

In America, I was insulated from financial reality by a Kennedy scholarship. I would have balked at paying anything like today’s average Ivy League fees of $35,000 a year. I know American students who are fed up having their teaching delegated to assistants, and feel that fees have run ahead of quality. For while markets liberate, they can also abuse, especially if top universities have a monopoly on status. The American attitude is right to demand better of a service they pay for. The principle of charging is right, but fees must not be unlimited.

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