Higher education, as everyone knows, is low down on the political agenda. Higher productivity, higher spending on health, higher pensions, perhaps even higher taxes, all play well with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But not higher education. That is bad for the universities, but good politics, because the sad truth is that for all its recent expansion, higher education is an audience British politicians can, by and large, afford to ignore.
That low profile is costing British universities dear. And it contrasts with the position in the US, where the ligaments of religion, gender, race and ethnicity, not to mention college sports, link people with the university. And this even includes many Americans who didn't graduate at all.
From the earliest years, American colleges were based on inclusiveness. Even before the Revolution, colleges were created to provide places for people who felt excluded. At first, religion was the issue. Baptists created Brown in Rhode Island, and Congregationalists founded Dartmouth in New Hampshire. Georgetown, the first Catholic college, was founded in 1789, and at the other end of the Christian spectrum, evangelical fundamentalists set up colleges, many of which are still thriving today.
Then gender, ethnicity and race became the foundations for successive waves of new colleges. Although 19th- century American women were not excluded from higher education as thoroughly as their English counterparts, prestigious colleges for women were set up, starting with Vassar in 1865. By the end of the century, women had their Seven Sisters colleges, and there were colleges for African-Americans, too, both in the North and the South. The immigration of the late-19th century provided another impetus, as newly established immigrant groups saw colleges as an important expression and vehicle of their culture.
At every stage, the political need to include important constituencies, and a structure that made it possible to create new colleges, reinforced the idea that inclusiveness was a good thing. In Britain, by contrast, until recently the dominant view was that university was for maintaining established standards of cultural excellence. Like prehistoric cave paintings, they would be damaged if too many "ordinary" people got too close.
College sports illustrate the differences between the US and UK in the relationship between those inside and outside higher education nicely. Sport has been important in US colleges since the 1870s, when college authorities saw it as a way to encourage students in the ways of muscular Christianity. But now it serves as a bond with the community of incalculable importance. College football is huge. Games are televised, and even people with no connection to their local college can feel warmly about its teams. They may not stand much chance of affording or getting into Syracuse University, but that doesn't stop the locals from supporting its teams.
In Britain, by contrast, university sports exist primarily for their participants. Racial, ethnic or religious groups have no prestigious institutions to call their own, and most women's colleges are now co-educational. Lacking these natural constituencies, friends at court are fewer, and the universities' political position weaker.
And this at a time when budgetary pressures mean that universities need friends more than ever. Apart from earmarked research money and their own endowment funds, universities depend on money from the Treasury, and the fees students pay (or the Government pays on their behalf). These fees, currently £1,075 a year, are low by comparison with the US, even in the public sector: take one example, the State University College at Brockport, part of the State University of New York, charges twice as much.
The Government has ruled out allowing universities such as those in the Russell Group (whose vice-chancellors meet in the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury) to charge more, on the grounds that it would reduce access to poorer students. Even with means-tested subsidies, differential fees would make the top universities seem even more unapproachable.
Money will have to come from people other than students, and unless they can build up links with the outside community, British universities will never have the funds to compete with the international brand leader in mass higher-education. There are too few emotional ties to the nation's heart strings or purse strings.
Again, transatlantic experience is instructive. Many American colleges are embedded in their local communities. In some cases, the colleges owe their very creation to local boosterism, and have a strong tradition of returning the compliment by involvement in the life of their town or city. In Britain, the local community is a potential source of support that many institutions have overlooked. This is partly a matter of time – it is harder to establish local links if you have only been around in your current incarnation since 1992 – but it is also an inheritance from the days of elitism.
The other undertapped resource is alumni. It is striking that wealthy Americans choose to give so much of their own money to their alma mater. Such giving, which is encouraged by the federal tax system, makes a huge difference. Princeton, for example, received $70m from alumni last year, 11 per cent of its budget. Indeed, that even understates the relative importance of private giving in the US compared with Britain. In the past five years, Princeton's 250th anniversary appeal has raised $1bn from alumni. That is more than Cambridge's entire endowment fund (£661m), which began in medieval times.
Gordon Brown announced tax incentives for charitable giving. But whether this will increase the amount alumni give British universities remains to be seen. The sharper universities are already tapping into this potential resource. It is going to be tough to move higher education up the Treasury's priority list, and the first battle must be for the hearts and minds of the electorate. Without the ties of religion, gender, race, ethnicity and college sports to bind them to national affections, universities are going to have to start with their alumni.
The writers work for State University of New York College at BrockportReuse content