Like clockwork each year, when A-level result and university admission time comes round, the media goes hunting, hoping it will find the next Laura Spence. Spence was a well-qualified state school pupil, who in 2000 was rejected from Oxford, before being accepted by Harvard on a £65,000 scholarship. The brief cause celebre briefly brought the issue of elitism within the UK university sector to the forefront of media debate. Well-known class warrior Gordon Brown controversially weighed in to the fray, describing Oxford’s rejection as ‘an absolute scandal’. Of course, for the media to find something similar happening now Brown is Prime Minister would be another minor humiliation for the beleaguered incumbent at Number 10. On current form, however, I don’t think Mr Brown has anything much to worry about on this score.
On September 5th, The Times published a rather fact-light article speculating on the ability of US universities to attract British students with large bursaries. With it was published a case study designed to illustrate this alleged trend – but there is something about it that doesn’t quite work.
Tom Gibson, 18, from Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire…
A great start to the tale of woe. Mr Gibson is paying at least a mere £20,422.50 (including an extra £82.50 per term for being a sixth-former) per year for his education. OK, carry on – tell me more about poor Master Gibson.
…has accepted an offer from Wake Forest, a university in North Carolina that focuses on the liberal arts. It charges $36,500 (£20,000) a year for tuition but more than half of undergraduates receive financial aid.
I admit I had to look Wake Forest up. The Animal isn’t a great fan of university league tables – they tend to be highly subjective or measure aspects of universities that really don’t matter to prospective undergraduates – but they do provide some idea of, for example, the international standing of each university in terms of research output. So where does Mr Gibson’s future alma mater rank? According to the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement world rankings of universities, Wake Forest ranks 203rd. In terms of UK universities, this places it between the University of Surrey and Queen’s University Belfast.
The level of funding within the US system was a real draw for me,” he said. I like the fact that I don’t have to choose a subject yet — I can just start the course and decide once I have a better idea of the options.” He achieved straight A grades in his A levels and will study a broad arts programme.
So it all gets a bit stranger. A well-off, high achieving student, has decided not to attend the ‘good’ UK university that he would undoubtedly walk into, in order to attend a middle-ranking US university which charges nearly seven times as much per year (and paid up-front) as an equivalent UK institution. Why? We can discount the stuff about not choosing a course yet, as Scottish institutions operate a similar system. So instead it must be about a very generous bursary – the rights and wrongs of providing so much financial aid to a financially unchallenged student must surely be questionable. And just in case we had any doubt, we learn that:
His family has moved out to be with him.
How…unusual. It doesn’t look like finances are really that much of an issue after all.
So what has The Times’ case study told us? Absolutely nothing: this is a highly unusual case. Even amongst the 7% of students attending independent schools, such behaviour is unlikely to become common. So this is a tiny minority of a pretty small minority. Hardly indicative of an emerging trend.
But what the case study also tells us is about the underlying message that The Times, along with other sections of the media and some parts of the political spectrum, is trying to convey. That is that if the UK higher education sector is to compete with that of the US, it must ape the funding system in place across the Atlantic. In other words, unlimited and unregulated fees in a rampant private HE sector, with large proportions of funding being dependent on the donations of alumni. Of course, the donations are often not exactly that, but a means of gaining admission to the institution for the alumni’s offspring, regardless of academic ability.
There’s nothing perfect about the UK’s funding system: indeed The Animal campaigned strongly against the introduction of a marketised top-up fee system and the crippling elitism that some parts of the sector display shows few signs of shifting (particularly in the light of today’s ridiculous commentsby Cambridge’s V-C that universities are ‘not engines of social mobility’). But a shift towards the full marketisation and light/no-touch regulation experienced in the US would be a massively retrograde step. Yes, there are bursaries and scholarships galore available in the US, but loans, and therefore debt, still represent a vital part of the financial package that most students draw upon, acting as an effective deterrent to disadvantaged families. And yes, to misquote Harold Wilson, if universities are not engines of social mobility, they are nothing.
There is a clear agenda emerging here and there has to be a real concern that the Tories, who have regularly condemned the government’s limited attempts to tackle elitism in HE, such as the 50% target for university participation or the Office of Fair Access, might be listening.