What Britain can learn from America

“Best practice” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days. I first encountered it three years ago working for a transatlantic fellowship programme out of Washington, and while I disapprove in general of government-based managerialist buzzwords, today I am going to use it for the first time.

I was thinking about the 2002 class gift to my university. I began musing about the history and current political climate facing UNC-Chapel Hill, its fifteen sister universities in North Carolina, and, by extension, state-run university systems in other countries, such as Britain, say. I began to wonder what we could learn, what is “best practice.”

At U.S. universities the graduating class gets together and gives something to the school to remember them by. Obviously, at a behemoth school like Carolina, this means someone has to coordinate around 3,000 people into submitting suggestions, reading them, voting for one, raising the money for it, and getting it made, setup, and maintained. Some are physical, like this one, some are nebulous, like an endowment for a travel scholarship, all are expensive, costing around $30,000 and did I mention funded entirely by students’ donations?

2002’s gift, “The Unsung Founders’ Memoiral,” is designed to be a piece of living sculpture, a stone table and chairs in one of the two main quads, the table is supported by 300 human figures, representing the slaves that built the university, starting with that cornerstone of Old East (still standing, currently a dorm) on October 12th, 1793.

Chartered in 1789, the same year that the French stormed the Bastille, Chapel Hill is arguably the U.S.’s first public (state) university. The first student, Hinton James, walked from Wilmington, a three-hour drive away on the coast, to start classes on February 12th, 1795. In the state constitution, drafted in 1776, the founding fathers of North Carolina proclaimed that as soon as possible “one or more universities” should be founded so that “all useful learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted.” It further stated that an education at such a university ought to be state-supported and “free as practicable.”

Two hundred years after the laying of that cornerstone, Chancellor James Moeser, affectionately referred to by all as “The Meeze,” reaffirmed that connection with the state by creating the “Carolina Covenant,” a committment to all students from all families earning up to 150% of the poverty line that they would graduate from university debt free.

This concept is revolutionary in academic administration in the US: debt-free. Carolina was already the envy of many financial aid departments across the country for being able to state that it met “100% of stated financial need.” In admin-speak, this means that if you qualified as needing help under FAFSA guidelines, the University would put together a package of low interest loans, grants and work/study that would meet all your educational expenses. Other universities talk about “the gap” where they have to tell some students that they have to find that extra tuition themselves, and some universities pride themselves that that gap is “only” 5% of tuition. When tuition can be $38,000 a year, that doesn’t feel like “only” $1,900.

Carolina met 100% of need, and topped it. The Carolina Covenant means that, if you’re from a two-parent family earning less than $40,000 a year ($28,000 for single-parent families), your financial aid package will not include loans. In 2002, the average public school student left university with a student loan debt of $17,000. Fees are non-negotiable. Books are a monopolistic racket. The dorm will come in at $2500 a semester, and your meal plan at $500. College is not cheap.

Tuition in the U.S. is the same regardless of your parents’ income. That might determine how much help the federal government offers you, but universities set their own prices, and they are not all the same. Within a state-school system, for example, the UNC system, the 16 universities range in quality and price, with Carolina, as the flagship, being the most expensive and most prestigious, at $3,205 a year for in-state students and $16,303 for those from out of state.

The state government, the NC General Assembly, sets the budget. It mandates the massive differential between the in-state and out-of-state tuition gap. It can determine tuition increases and hiring freezes on top of policy set on campus. The General Assembly says how many students may be from out of state (18%) and how many should come from each North Carolian county: a quota based on population, designed to ensure the university represents all the people from across the state.

There is a lot of back and forth between Raleigh and Chapel Hill about which takes precedence, and deal-making about who compromises what. Chapel Hill is on a campaign to be ranked the number one public university in the U.S., and so wants more out of state students (they have higher SATs and higher graduating salaries than native North Carolinians) and to use undergraduate education as a cash cow to fund cutting edge graduate research programmes. The General Assembly wants to keep its promises to the taxpayers and the state of North Carolina, set out in the 1776 Constitution, especially “free as practicable.”

The Carolina Covenant satisfies both. The first intake was in Fall of 2004. 345 students qualified. One year on, a jump in enrollments from lower-income families is expected, as Chapel Hill, the most expensive school in the UNC system, suddenly becomes affordable to the state’s poorest families. This programme has been adopted by many universities since, including Harvard, who claim that they thought of it first. (But they didn’t.)

It hinges on a federal government policy called “work-study.” Work-study is typically an underused resource at universities. Basically, each university has an allowance of cash set aside by the federal government which can be received in exchange for proof of hours worked by students on campus. Before the Carolina Covenant, the University was underusing this fund to the tune of $2 million.

Typically at Carolina, these work/study jobs were of the filing/mopping/sitting at a reception desk variety, but with an expected sudden influx of work-study student employees, expected to grow to a workforce of at least 1400 students by Fall of 2008, and with state budget cuts and hiring freezes leaving positions empty and departments understaffed across the campus, the administration began to re-think how they used student employees and look around for a solution.

The Morehead Planetarium, on the same quad as the Unsung Founders’ Memorial, had 12 full-time employees and 70 student employees when I left. The full-time employees directed and kept everything ticking over, planned and managed, but it was the students who were the front line. It was them giving the classes in DNA extraction to visiting school groups, keeping track of the inventory and purchases for the gift shop, writing the press releases, managing the events. They had the best pay-rates on campus that rose as they developed our skills, and the long-term student employees managed other students. The university got very interested in this as a model for the Carolina Covenant…

Suddenly, these students from low-income backgrounds are being given jobs that teach them practical, professional skills, at the same time as they work towards their degree. They are building their CVs, and paying for school. Better yet, they are learning how the university they will call mother (“alma mater”) for the rest of their lives works. That’s why Carolina students raise between $20,000 and $40,000 for a class gift every year. Because they feel they belong to the university and it belongs to them. Better than any McJob out there.

I tell you all of this not because I believe this is an ideal system. The state raises tuition and cuts the budget without a marked improvement in anything on campus. Students still graduate with massive debt. 150% of the poverty level still isn’t very much, leaving the middle classes out of the deal, and, even among those who qualify, living expenses are generally put on a credit card, deferred until four years later at massively inflated rates.

My point, however, is this: there is another way to do tuition-based tertiary higher education, Britain. It involves establishing financial aid departments within the universities themselves, price differentials between universities, allowing them to control their costs and support their needy. It involves incentivising students to work on campus, to become involved in their alma maters, by paying for their tuition. It involves decentralisation, self-reliance, self-determination, albeit regulated, and overseen, as a state university should be. Above all, it involves a committment to the people who pay for the university through their taxes. A committment to enable them after university, not disable them by tying their hands with debt.

I don’t know enough yet about British higher education to offer a solution, but just talking to someone who went to Glasgow University in the early 90s and someone who went in the early noughties convinced me that something went wrong with the switch to tuition. I’m just offering a few suggestions for what that might be.

  1. Alternatively, allow the development of an official “Ivy League”, bring back the Polytechnics, and let market forces eventually lead to the abolition of the no-mark courses which are currently being subsidised by the better ones.

    (Of course, that could also lead to the abolition of all those courses – History, English etc. – that our dear Home Secretary expressed such a love* for while he was in charge of Education, and the proliferation of things like Business Studies and Golf Course Maintenance which could actually be seen as being vocational and thus with a measuarable market value.)

    * may mean contempt

  2. Actually, the Ivy League is only 26 private universities. It’s not as much of a big deal in the states as it seems from over here. Seriously, Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton are the WOW schools, and the rest are considered good, but there are a LOT MORE private universities with equal or higher reputations than a lot of the ivies. It was a pretty arbitrary grouping when it was founded. My school, for instance, even as a public school, is ranked higher than one or two ivies.

    Actually, I am leaving out community colleges, the corollary to polytechnics, for now. They serve a much stronger purpose in the US than the polytechnics ever did in the UK, and should be considered as an option.

    I am going to write some more about higher education, because I actually know a fair bit about it, especially about the private/public debate. Some state universities in the states have taken the LSE route of refusing money from the government in order to have the freedom to move up in rankings (more “foreign”/out of state students) and I’d like to go into that in some depth, especially the funding. Which universities in britain can “afford” to go private? I reckon the answer is the ones with a strong alma matriotic alumnae/i base.

    Interesting statistic following a conversation with andrew: the annual drop out rate in britain is 1 in four, leaving us with a graduation rate of 37%. The US average, as of 2001, the last year I got the numbers for, is 50% (and change). Why is that? If it is so difficult and expensive to get through college in the US, and so cheap and easy in the UK, why is their graduation rate so much higher? I’ll into this some time too. Time at university isn’t really well spent unless you come out with a degree after all.

    I think the reality is, we’re stuck with tuition fees, but the switch was done the wrong way, and we need to work out where to go from here.

  3. Andrew said:

    Katie: Just to clarify, the 1 in 4 figure I didn’t look up – it was in the back of my mind, so I’m not sure how accurate it is. The 37% figure is the rate for 2001, and comes from National Statistics. I had assumed that the graduation rate in the US was higher, for various reasons, but I couldn’t believe that both rates were so low. Will be interesting to explore further.

  4. dearieme said:

    £9000 or £12000 tuition costs for, say, an excellent three-year or four-year education at Oxbridge or a handful of other places is spanking value. It might be rotten value for wasting your time on some feeble course elsewhere (and friends’ children do seem, by their own accounts, to be wasting their time in Universities that you’d have thought ought to be rather good). The good value will go disproportionately to middle-class children, irrespective of which sort of school they went to – and the lousy value will go to the children of the less well-off or less educated. And this from a Labour government. What a pickle!