Magazine article The Spectator

Survival of the Richest

Magazine article The Spectator

Survival of the Richest

Article excerpt

New York

As British universities lurch from funding crisis to funding crisis, the jealous eyes of the academic establishment focus obsessively on the United States as the role model for future success. The assumption is that if UK universities charged 'realistic' fees, they would recreate themselves as 'world class' - or, at any rate, superior - institutions, like those in America.

But what is the truth about American universities? Are they really so much better than those in Britain? Are US students in general better educated? Does the US profit from the enormous sacrifice made each year by parents and students?

Some - perhaps 20 or 30 - American universities are better than all but a tiny handful of their British equivalents. A few, such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, but also MIT, Chicago and Berkeley, make up the global crème de la crème of academia. Most US universities, however, are very ordinary places. The average US college degree is a lowly thing, requiring the standard once achieved by most Brits by the end of their first year. It is only at the post-graduate level that American excellence truly kicks in. This is also where the big bucks go.

Much of the cash lavished on colleges is spent on comfy rooms, Internet access and insanely competitive basketball and football teams. The high spending allows tenured professors to have a second car, a lakeside summer home and no-quibble health insurance. In no serious sense is it spent on education. That is why, as you drive past a typical US college, it will announce not that it is number 34, or whatever, in the national league of academic excellence, but that its women's basketball team took top honours in 1988 or 1992.

Some American professors (and everybody is a professor) are superb; most are not. 'Celebrity' teachers, who are traded like baseball players, are the exception to the rule. They may make the headlines; they do not set the standards. Ditto Nobel Prize winners. It sounds impressive that most of the glittering prizes each year go to academics in American institutions, but many of the recipients are foreign-born and foreign-educated, and have little or no contact with undergraduates.

Students, meanwhile, unlike their high-school counterparts in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, are not all 'above average'. Far from it. US graduates are often ill-educated know-nothings, for whom their four years (yes, four) at college are mainly devoted to having a good time and making connections. Think American Pie here. Maybe one in ten is truly gifted, and these are the ones who are force-fed through grad schools, so that they can go on to run the country.

America is huge. The population will soon reach 300 million - larger than the combined populations of Germany, France, Italy and Britain. It would be surprising if this fact did not translate into a preponderance of achievement, including top graduates and Nobel Prize winners. If the comparison were to be between the US on the one hand and Europe's Big Four on the other, plus, say, the Netherlands and Denmark, how would things look? Very different is the answer. No one disputes that the best universities in America are first-rate. But the best of Europe is not that far behind, and Europe's standard in general is higher. Take a hundred American undergraduates at random and put them up against a core sample from Britain, France and Germany, and then say that the Americans are brighter and more accomplished. As they say in California: Hello!

What is true is that the better American universities have more money available to develop products for government and industry. …

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