You can't just pick and mix from the American dream

Once a system of top-up fees is developed in this country, the public service ethos will decline
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The Independent Online

The thorny question of university top-up fees returns to the Commons today and the Government will resume its argument about how Britain's universities must be able to compete with the best in the world, and how the only way to increase funds is to make students pay more for courses at elite institutions, if need be by taking out loans. Ministers will assure us that the loan system will improve poorer students' access to higher education; and no one will pay back a penny without earning an adequate wage.

The thorny question of university top-up fees returns to the Commons today and the Government will resume its argument about how Britain's universities must be able to compete with the best in the world, and how the only way to increase funds is to make students pay more for courses at elite institutions, if need be by taking out loans. Ministers will assure us that the loan system will improve poorer students' access to higher education; and no one will pay back a penny without earning an adequate wage.

There is so much sweet reason here, so much wishful egalitarianism, that it is easy to lose sight of the premise on which the argument is based. But the premise should not be ignored. Not only does it say much about how this Government sees the future of higher education in this country, it also has implications for the values that will be prized in Britain into the next generation. It is not as free of consequences as it seems.

Yet again, we see this Government judging quality according to purely numerical indicators, such as numbers of Nobel prizes, numbers of professors and research labs and above all the proportion of young people going to college. And yet again, it is adopting definitions of excellence that reside in the US. Given the number of ministers and their advisers who have benefited from scholarships or exchange schemes in the US, the Government's enthusiasm for US models may not be altogether surprising, and there are parts of American education that are admirable. The facilities at its top universities are second to none; the openness of access to premier institutions, through aptitude tests and state colleges, helps to compensate for the uneven standards in state secondary schools. Probably more school-leavers from poor backgrounds have a real chance to go on to college than in this country. An extensive system of low-interest loans is augmented by generous scholarships, funded in large part by grateful (and wealthy) graduates.

It is understandable, too, if New Labour luminaries - searching for a system that would foster more social mobility than the ossified Oxbridge and old school tie set-up they see (and often benefited from) in Britain - were inspired by the biography of the small boy from Hope who defied humble beginnings to graduate from two of America's most prestigious universities, win a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and become President of the United States. Nor is Bill Clinton the only poor kid from the sticks to have reached the White House. Their stories epitomise the American dream.

The trouble is that we have been the way of transatlantic cultural borrowing with this Government before, and the results have not been entirely convincing. Think of the plan to reproduce the US constitutional separation of powers that spawned the project for a Supreme Court. If you start tampering with one aspect of a long-established structure, however loose and informal it may appear, you risk destabilising, or changing, other things, too.

Expanding access to higher education in Britain is a laudable and necessary objective, and this Government is right to try. But there are two major ways in which Britain and the United States differ, each of which will make it extremely difficult for a US model of higher education to be successfully copied here. Outside of Oxford and Cambridge, British universities lack not only the generous endowments many American universities enjoy, they also lack that culture of agitation and charitable giving. Raising funds from graduates by cold-calling or fund-raising social events requires not only a paid staff and enthusiastic volunteers, but receptive graduates with money (or tax credits) to spare. We have neither the institutional loyalty nor the tax incentives to make this work.

The second difference lies in our pay structure. British graduates earn more than those without a degree. But the difference is nothing like the gap between the two groups in the United States, and may narrow as more people obtain degrees. In the United States, lawyers, doctors, nurses and university professors are paid twice or three times what they earn in Britain; some earn much more. Our salary structure is more akin to that of Continental Europe; many graduate professionals work in the public or non- profit sector, trading not much lower salaries against security, pension entitlements and personal satisfaction.

Once a system of top-up fees is developed in this country, it is hard to see many indebted graduates opting to work in the NHS or in parts of the Civil Service or academia. Private practice will multiply in every conceivable discipline, as graduates seek salaries to match their financial obligations. The public service ethos - still something Britons and Europeans can be proud of - will decline. You cannot graft one part of the American social system - open-access college education on credit - on to ours without precipitating more American-style change - a wider wealth gap, privatisation of public services, a flimsier safety net - further down the line. You have been warned.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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