Saturday, 23 April 2011

A university experience from America

I have been following the university applications of a friend's son with some interest. He applied to eight institutions, all of them established and esteemed universities and all of them American. In the circumstances that is hardly surprising because my friend is American and lives with her family in Massachusetts. Her son has always done well at school, obtaining very high grades in almost all subjects. He is not a wholly outstanding student but his grades gave him a realistic chance of a place at Harvard or Yale. Despite being shortlisted for interview at both, he was not offered a place at either and instead had to choose between two other very well known universities. I won't say which because it doesn't matter for the purpose of today's screed. What I want to write about is an aspect of how the whole process works for people of modest means in the USA.

Unlike here, there is no culture of expectation and no culture of entitlement. The concept of education being "free" is unknown because everyone knows it is not free, it is just a matter of who pays for it. Suggest to my friend that her son should be entitled to have his tuition and keep paid for and her question will be "who by?" (they are not very good at 'whom' over there and care not a jot if a sentence ends with a preposition). Parents understand that universities are independent institutions and have to raise money to pay the costs of providing the tuition and other facilities that youngsters wish to use to increase their prospects as they enter adulthood. Equally, the universities exist to provide a service and have to justify that existence through offering a service that is sufficiently attractive to entice people to pay. Insufficient paying customers and the course is scaled back or eliminated. The thinking at the universities is not that they are entitled to paying customers and some means must be found to pay for however many courses they choose to offer, it is that a loss on one course means students on well-subscribed courses will be at risk of receiving a lesser service than would be the case if poodle varnishing were left off the curriculum.

My friend's son applied not just for a place but also for funding from university bursaries and scholarships. His parents have ordinary jobs, each paying under the national average wage. They have saved for each child to provide a college fund but their resources have not allowed them to create a big enough pot to do more than make a contribution towards the costs of a university course. Two factors affect the decision about which offer to accept. The boy has to decide which course is best for him but he also has to consider the cost implications of that decision. One offer will require the family to find about $4,000 a year more than the other course which calls for a nominal contribution. That's a significant sum for them, particularly because there are younger siblings, one of whom will be of university age while the eldest is still an undergraduate. The parents have said he should choose the course that he thinks will serve him best and that he should not concern himself with the financial side of things. No doubt he will have little appreciation of what it would mean from day-to-day to find $4,000 each year, but it is hard to imagine that even a teenager could leave it out of his thinking entirely.

For the parents the position is simple. Their son has an opportunity to go to a very good university and gain a qualification that, subject to his own endeavours, should equip him for a good career. They did not have that opportunity and will do everything they can to ensure their child utilises his. There is no scintilla of remorse, envy or bitterness that they will have to make a contribution towards the costs of tuition any more than their son feels such emotions at the thought he will have to find part-time work throughout his college years to keep himself in beer and condoms. American college students have a long history of taking evening and weekend jobs to pay their way. My experience is that they make excellent waiting staff at restaurants because they are bright and attentive and have enough about them to know that the more you please the customer the larger the tip is likely to be. Some go into prostitution, in which field the same rules apply.

Last week there was uproar among the professionally entitled when the London Metropolitan University announced a plan to cut the number of courses offered from 557 to 160. There is a delicious article in a newspaper local to FatBigot Towers giving a headline figure of 400 courses being abolished, with a first paragraph saying it is more than 400 and only by the seventh paragraph does the writer do the sums and work out that 557 minus 160 is 397 (here). The London Metropolitan University is an amalgamation of a number of former polytechnics. The greatest distincition achieved by any department of the constituent parts was probably the Law faculty at the City of London Polytechnic which was as good as that of many minor universities, but there is no basis for arguing that LMU is anything other than a make-weight new university. Why does anyone suggest it, or any part of it, is entitled to remain in being if it can't pay its way?

The contrast with the USA is marked. Universities over there are forced to close courses all the time when they don't attract sufficient paying customers. Most marked is that they attract paying customers who pay with their own money save where the university has funds which it allocates to those who show the greatest aptitude for the subject according to the judgment of the university itself. Now, I am not so blind as to ignore the existence of a degree of tokenism in US universities, especially where future funding is dependent on appearing to give advantage to minorities today; but that is all part of the same process - they sometimes take the wrong person and exclude the right person this year because doing so ensures 1,000 of the right people can be funded next year.

This field is one of a long list in which good intentions have combined with electoral bribes to create a situation in the UK that is fundamentally artificial. We seem to have, at least among the political chatterati, an established phrase that is treated as the starting point of all discussion about higher education, namely: "free university education". Any call for contributions towards tuition fees is seen as an affront to reasonable expectation because the assumed ideal is that all students should get whatever they want at someone elses expense. No sane person could ever talk of "free university education". University education is a hugely expensive business, it is not and never has been free. Someone has to pay for it. Over here the culture is that taxpayers should pay for it, over there the culture is that the student and/or his family have to pay for it.

Provided there is a sensible system of scholarships and bursaries for the promising but impecunious, those who deserve university places will receive them (yes, some will always slip through the net for more reasons than you could shake an elephant's willy at but that will always happen). Provided universities are dependent on people using their own money to decide which courses are worth paying for, they can remain in being but only if they offer good courses at a competitive cost. When both the customer and the supplier have their limitless demands met by the milk of the taxation udder you will get low-grade courses being followed by low-grade students to the benefit of nobody other than the very people who are currently making the most noise about the London Metropolitan University - udder suckers who can only maintain their positions with the near presence of a soft and generous teat.

As usual I have waffled all around the houses but I think there is one point about my friend's experience that is more important than any other. Her son's education is a private thing, it's funding is a private thing, both are sorted out in the family and between the family and the university. It is not the business of anyone else and it is not the responsibility of anyone else. The expensive dead hand of The State is nowhere to be seen.

And everyone is happy.


Barnacle Bill said...

Quote - "... the professionally entitled..." unquote.
Such a precise definition and astute observation Mr. FB of the majority view nowadays. A fallacy encouraged by our last two socialist PMs.
Although both seem to have abandoned such views since leaving office!

A friend of my mother was bemoaning the fact to me that her son who had gained a degree in "Greens Management" was struggling to gain a position suited to his qualification.
When she listed the Belfry & St, Andrews as being two of the places who had turned him down I struggled to keep a straight face!

So the "the professionally entitled" also seems to follow them after they have graduated!

Anonymous said...

"University education is a hugely expensive business..."

Can't help but think they could do it a bit cheaper. As someone once observed, mathematicians are very cheap to teach, needing only some paper, a pencil and a bin. Economists are even cheaper because you don't need the bin.

It's amazing what infrastructure you do seem to need in order to deliver a few lectures. Am I the only ex-student who feels that he could probably have taught himself just about enough to pass the courses and hardly set foot in the building apart from to go to the bar?

Anonymous said...

Anon 00:21

Remember that you (or whoever) are not just paying to be taught. You are also paying for the teacher to stop his research to teach you. OK, research in maths may not be expensive, but you do need to pay for journal subscriptions, books, electricity, computers and software (because the people who purchase it aren't using their own money), toilets, cleaners, a printer for your degree certificiate (yes, mine was designed in Word using Arial 12pt, and this is from one of the top unis in the world in London - google it and you may be able to see a copy)