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March 13, 2006

What can British policy-makers learn from studying the American university system?

Posted by Jeremy Black

What can British policy-makers learn from studying the American university system? Jeremy Black - Professor of History at the University of Exeter and, amongst much else, author of The European Question and the National Interest - offers some suggestions.

It is scarcely surprising that on a recent visit to New England to lecture, the subject of conversation among the academics I met turned frequently to recent antics at Harvard. In part, this reflects the spectator sport offered by developments there, in part a widespread hostility to what is generally perceived as the unwarranted pretentiousness of Harvard, and in part interest in developments that might be of wider resonance. In Britain, furthermore, there appears the parallel provided by the difficulties encountered by John Hope, the Vice Chancellor of Oxford, as he attempts to introduce a degree of central direction in an institution widely perceived in terms of its own sectional interests.

In practice, neither Harvard nor Oxford are more generally symptomatic of their national systems. Instead, due to their finances and particular constitutional structures and political cultures, these universities are in many respects eccentric to these systems. Nevertheless, their newsworthy character ensures that they enjoy particular attention, while debates in Harvard and Oxford also focus wider issues, albeit in especially atypical contexts. Both universities invite consideration of the purposes and governance of higher education, albeit with the fundamental difference that Oxford is dependent on state finance to a considerable extent, whereas Harvard is not. This in turn leads to, and, critics would argue, reflects the wider problem that Oxford seeks the solution to many of its problems in improving its relationship with the state (at least in the shape of more money), whereas Harvard does not.

If we were constructing a system anew, this reliance on state sponsorship would probably be seen as undesirable. Certainly government direction and intervention under the Blair ministries is lending plenty of support to this view. However, the process by which greater independence might be achieved is unclear, and this is a fundamental problem, as the issue of process engages all the various constituencies and goals of interest. For example, universities are as much about the annual provision of sufficient numbers of doctors, dentists and others, as about the pursuit of knowledge.

Students and academics, parents, employers, taxpayers and government all have "stakes", and each of these constituencies have varied views. This variety lacks adequate representation in the system, and this is an important contrast with the situation in the USA. The latter is a consumer-driven system, and the variety of consumer goals and means plays a powerful role in shaping provision, particularly at the level of courses. The British system has consumerist elements, but is overly top-down in provision, funding and quality control. This is a major challenge for the Conservatives. The current one-size-fits-all policy does not work, but creating an alliance for change will prove very difficult, given the range of interests involved. On the other hand, the current system is visibly creaking, and present government policies are, at best, inappropriate and maladroit. The possibility of defining new policies is an exciting one and the need is certainly there.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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Harvard may differ from other American Universities in magnitude, but not in kind. It has more money ($25 Billion), and a quirkier governance structure than other schools, but its problems differ in size not type. Faculties are out of control at other schools. Undergraduate education is neglected at other schools. Spurious research in the humanities is exhalted over mastery of the classics at other schools.

The problems are old and not easy to solve. Our Master, Adam Smith reflected:

In other universities the teacher is prohibited from receiving any honorary or fee from his pupils, and his salary constitutes the whole of the revenue which he derives from his office. His interest is, in this case, set as directly in opposition to his duty as it is possible to set it. It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or, if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit. If he is naturally active and a lover of labour, it is his interest to employ that activity in any way from which he can derive some advantage, rather than in the performance of his duty, from which he can derive none.

If the authority to which he is subject resides in the body corporate, the college, or university, of which he himself is a member, and which the greater part of the other members are, like himself, persons who either are or ought to be teachers, they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every man to consent that his neighbour may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own. In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.

Wealth of Nations Book V -- Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth, PART III -- Of the Expence of public Works and public Institutions, ARTICLE II -- Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Education of Youth, 136-137
http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 14, 2006 05:28 AM
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