Statistically, America has the most successful universities in the world. In a study to find the top 200 universities, 72 were American. The facilities and quality of education that they can provide far outstrip most of Europe. Clearly, the absence of a cap on tuition fees has made it possible for American universities to provide this quality and, with the UK probably on its way to what is referred to a similar ‘fee-market’ system of education, perhaps our universities will be able to compete on a more equal footing with the US in the world rankings. Indeed, following the recent Browne review, those that can afford the probable introduction of extortionate tuition fees to institutions such as Oxbridge, will be exposed to both brilliant teaching and outstanding resources.
America has both a privatised and a public sector system of university education. Whilst some public universities or colleges (the name is interchangeable) are supported by state funding and therefore have reduced tuition fee costs, many are privately funded through a donation system and can charge anything up to $50,000 (£32,000) annually. However, as a justification for these costs, private universities frequently contain more extensive and well-equipped systems and there is more funding available for international students and those from less well-off backgrounds. Although the state government contributes a significant amount to public universities, fees do vary for those students who live in and out of the state.
Contrary to the UK, there is no governmental student finance company in America. Loans and bursaries are awarded by either the state government or the respective educational institution. Scholarships, especially those for sport, are common, but much of the average student’s financing comes from personal funding. There is some federal aid available which is awarded on a financial need basis; Stafford loans provide up to $31,000 over the course of an undergraduate degree. However, unlike the UK system where a graduate has to be earning £15,000 before re-payment begins (soon to be raised to £21,000 following the Browne review), US counterparts must begin six months after finishing study regardless of income.
However, it could be argued that this extra cost is worth it considering the difference in the actual substance of a Bachelor’s degree in the US compared to those offered in the UK. American degrees are generally four or five years where both a major and various minor subjects must be studied. Students are encouraged to take a range of courses within the so-called ‘liberal arts’ sector, a combination of humanities, natural sciences and social sciences, and then continue to specialise or ‘major’ in a particular field during their last two years of study. Despite the negative implications of paying for an extra year at university, in comparison with many three year UK degrees, the wide variety of subjects students are allowed to study is surely an advantage. Apart from allowing you to meet a wider range of people, this programme offers the chance to challenge yourself and fulfil curiosities about other fields of study that UK universities do not provide.
Nevertheless, satisfaction with US education is far from widespread. The tide against increases in tuition fee costs is rapidly rising and the National Centre for Public Policy and Higher Education gathered statistics which suggested that 60% of Americans thought universities cared more about their finances than developing student facilities. To avoid such expenses, 4.6 million potential graduates are choosing to take online university courses instead and this could soon become a trend in Britain as the recent creation of the online BPP College has shown. Although this is clearly a positive way of dealing with costly fees, it destroys the important social side of student life that many physical universities offer.
Furthermore, there is a genuine fear that a greater social divide will appear between UK universities. This is a prominent criticism of the US system where poorer students are forced to choose cheaper, and often less respectable, institutions. It is also a realistic possibility that tuition fees in Britain will continue to rise as they have done in America. The simultaneous cut of governmental aid and the exponential rise in fees has left the US with a significant problem for poorer potential students. It has also been suggested that the increase in fees has not mirrored an increase in educational quality, with the extra funding going towards administration and sports facilities over improvements to ensure academic excellence. If a fees market is to succeed in the UK, universities may have to improve the quality and quantity of teaching available for students to justify the rise in costs and avoid criticism.
It seems apparent that US universities are keen to tempt UK students to its shores. There has been an increase in the amount of students going to American universities with 8,700 choosing to study there last year. Bursaries in excess of £20,000 are promised and the wonderful facilities that colleges in the Ivy League provide must be an adequate attraction for hopeful students. It is also reported that professors and lecturers at American institutions are much more aware of and interested in their student’s needs; a quality which is perhaps deficient in some UK universities. With the increase in finances and the stiff competition for university places here in Britain, it seems surprising that more students haven’t applied to study in the US. In light of this, it may be wise for Britain to seriously consider the state of its education system by both taking advice from America and learning from its mistakes. If it does not, our most promising students will start to look elsewhere for their education.