A Head Master Writes - The Sunday Times blog

Why British pupils are pursuing the American university dream

The latest world rankings from Times Higher Education couldn’t be clearer: US universities are the most successful in the world. Eight of its top ten universities are American, and 43 feature in the top 100 — a staggering achievement.

I have just returned from a two-week trip to the US where I visited five of those top eight universities, along with several others in the top hundred. I joined open-day tours, sat in on lectures and classes, and spoke to faculty members, admissions tutors and college presidents — as well, of course, to undergraduates. What I learnt was often jaw-dropping.

It wasn’t just libraries the size of town halls, or sports facilities spread out like midwest farms. It wasn’t just the accommodation provided for almost every student every year on campus, nor the way a four-year liberal arts degree allows students the time to choose the right specialisation over time. I don’t even mean the huge sums available to support less wealthy candidates, or the opportunities many universities provide for character-building work experience across the world during vacations.

No, to someone accustomed to British students telling woeful tales of minimal contact time, infrequently marked work, some decidedly poor teaching and a headlong pursuit of ever-greater numbers, what struck me most of all was the unfaltering emphasis on teaching, work ethos and time — time devoted to every student, both academically and pastorally.

At each American university I visited, I got used to a momentary look of bafflement as I asked earnestly about “contact time”. In the UK, this is a topic guaranteed to make all but the most impressive institutions feel uncomfortable. We have all heard of arts students who have had to write just one marked essay in an entire term, and whose supervisors wouldn’t recognise them if they sat opposite them in a café. But at each US university I visited, such arrangements were simply unthinkable.

“The term ‘contact time’ doesn’t really exist here because it’s never in question,” one tutor told me. “We expect students to be in class, we expect to read the work they do, we expect to be there to help them if they struggle — that’s just what we do.”

Students at US universities might have 15-20 hours of classes per week in both larger and smaller groups, with an expectation of a further 30 hours of private study. Across many universities there is a tradition of “office hours”: times when professors are expected to be available to see students. Some, such as Columbia, encourage undergraduates to invite a faculty member out for lunch to chat through work, or broader issues — with the bill settled by the university. They will offer set-piece classes on essay writing and, as at Princeton, free peer-tutoring, which anyone can request if they feel they are struggling with an aspect of their course. Princeton also provides “study halls”, where tutors with expertise in the material being worked on are available to help.

For most British undergraduates, such scenarios are simply unimaginable.

Beyond the teaching, US universities continue to put most rivals to shame. At Harvard, the median class size is 12 and the ratio of tutors (“faculty”) to students is 7:1. There are more than 3,500 academic courses on offer and 400 different extra-curricular activities. About 97% of student live on campus and all first years live in dormitories, where a whole raft of seniors are there to ensure you are noticed and settled. One undergraduate made the point that if someone in your dorm has just been selected for, say, the hockey team, someone will send a note around and “maybe 15 of us will go along to the match to support her”. That sense of collegiality, reflected in the acceptance at almost all universities that bedrooms are shared, is very American, although it could seem a little hearty for reserved Brits.

So just how strong are British universities when benchmarked against the best in the world? We have ten universities in the top 100, more than any other country after the US — an impressive start. But it was 12 last year, and Oxford and Cambridge have both dropped in the rankings. Meanwhile, Asia has doubled its number in the top hundred in a year. Is it possible that UK higher education, for centuries thought to represent the highest standards in the world, is losing its sheen?

Certainly there are some unsettling indicators. Perhaps the biggest issue is the dash for growth, the risk that each undergraduate begins to feel like a very small cog in a big machine. By 2013, undergraduate numbers had increased over recent years by 36% at Bristol, 35% at Exeter and 40% at University College, London. Stirling recorded a staggering 81% rise. At the same time, government cuts, some brought in hurriedly last summer, have reduced the funds available for teaching. Tuition fees, already at £9,000 per annum at the vast majority of universities, are set to rise with inflation from 2017 at stronger universities. Interest is charged on the debt from the day you start studying, not the day you leave; degree debts will, I fear, edge ever closer to six figures, dominating one’s entire earning life. I suspect that in a few years’ time, when the penny has dropped, far too many graduates will say: “It wasn’t worth it.”

The Sutton Trust produced a report last month stating that English graduates face debts that are, in real terms, even higher than those from the most famous American universities. They say that the average graduate of a private, non-profit university in America finishes with £23,000 of debt after a four-year course, while the UK equivalent is estimated at £44,000. Fees in the UK are also higher than those for Americans who attend their home state university — and many of these are also quite exceptional.

Compared with both private and public (state) universities in the US, British establishments are struggling with costs. UK university surpluses average less than 4% and some, including Manchester, Bristol, Imperial and Exeter, each have borrowing exceeding £200m. In contrast, many American universities have built up endowments worth billions of dollars. Such funds mean that if your family’s annual income is under about $120,000, you will not pay any tuition fees at some US universities; if it is below around $70,000, you may pay nothing at all.

UK universities face other issues too, not least to do with making sure people from all backgrounds feel they can apply. Between 2012-14, Oxford admitted an average of just 26 black undergraduates a year; at Stanford, 12% of the campus are African-American and just 38% are white.

The American universities I visited were clear that test scores were not the key selector; they say they look for many indicators of an individual’s potential to contribute to the wider life of the university and to make a difference to the world. Such an emphasis on initiative, broader talent and citizenship is anathema to UK universities, who can be terrified of benefiting pupils from independent schools (where such qualities are strongly endorsed). This in turn leads them to depend almost entirely on academic outcomes, on the grounds that this at least is “fair”. It is a convenient fiction to keep the fair-access tanks off the university lawns — but we all know that most pupils’ academic results depend heavily on their social background and the quality of teaching they have received.

The Fulbright Commission, which provides British citizens with advice on US university applications, says that in the last five years there has been a 23% increase in British students taking full degrees in the US; no other European country sends more students to America. At postgraduate level, America exerts its magnetic pull too: 2014-15 marked the biggest year-on-year increase in UK postgraduates enrolled in US universities.

In 2009, just two pupils from my school, King’s, went to university in the US. Last year, 14 sixth formers applied and nine accepted places. I have seen candidates preferring the US even over a firm Oxbridge offer. As future undergraduates weigh up the cost of UK university fees against the American dream of more teaching hours, generous bursaries, incredible facilities and ambitious expectations, we will see more and more follow the pioneers to the promised land.

British universities are still among the best in the world, but much needs to be done to hold up against the international competition. This includes a more secure fee structure from government, with more money available for the most deserving, even if this comes at the cost of allowing the weakest universities to wither on the vine; better preparation at school level for university entry among children from all backgrounds; a stronger emphasis on the day-to-day life of every undergraduate, with more contact time for humanities students; and academics who are valued and well paid.

Much of this depends on finance. The government should therefore make it especially attractive to donate to universities, while those who graduated in the days before debt should give as generously as they can, as often as they can, and as soon as they can.

Andrew Halls
Head Master

Head Master writes: Sunday Times blog archive


King's College School

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