Walter Ellis

Survival of the richest

Walter Ellis says that Britons are wrong to envy American universities. Some are very good indeed, but many more are abysmal

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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. This is almost entirely the result of highly efficient corporate and alumni donations. More is spent on science facilities and information technology than is the case in Europe, and this has traditionally fed through to the US economy.

But America’s open-door education is not nearly so open as the myth suggests. Many high-school graduates with real potential don’t make it through the system for the simple reason that they can’t afford it and come from the wrong background. Good intentions do not compensate for a lack of accumulated wealth and experience and, in spite of a generation of positive discrimination, blacks and Hispanics remain seriously under-represented. Foreign students, preponderantly Asian, take their places, usually studying science or mathematics, while white middle-class US applicants concentrate on law, media studies and business.

America, contrary to the myth, is a self-perpetuating elitist society, in which the favoured few are handsomely rewarded and the rest are left to fend for themselves. Those at the top, including politicians, scientists and leading journalists, but mainly business executives and lawyers, have a fine old time. But elsewhere, in vital areas, real talent is in short supply. And it’s getting worse, not better. That is why Asians and Europeans, including Brits, now run so much of Silicon Valley.

Parents, meanwhile, have to budget for as much as $100,000 for each child they put through college. Like pre-nups, college funds are part and parcel of married life. As a result, almost all applications for college places are accompanied by a begging letter, and most alumni ‘giving’ is devoted to reducing the burden on the new generation. You pay at the start of the process, and it never stops.

The trouble is that, even with scholarships, most people can’t afford more than second- or third-tier colleges. Anyone who lives in America, outside of New York’s Upper East Side or Beverly Hills or the smarter, gated communities of Florida, knows that the standard of living of the average American family is no better than that of its European counterpart, and often worse. Blue-collar families are woefully under-represented at university level, especially at the better colleges.

President Bush says he will change all this and ensure that ‘no child is left behind’. Bush is a third-generation multi-millionaire who went to Yale (and almost flunked). Senator John Kerry, the leading Democrat contender, says he will change all this. Kerry is a Boston Brahmin, educated at the finest schools and at Yale. He is married to a ketchup heiress worth some $500 million. Amusingly, General Wesley Clark, the former Nato commander, who recently dropped out of the Democratic race, boasted that he did not go to Yale. Indeed not: he went to West Point and Oxford.

Britain’s hard-pressed university teachers, desperate for bigger salaries and higher status, should be aware that not everything is rosy in America’s academic groves. Tenure is everything. The red carpet that often attracts new entrants can end up a little threadbare for all but the highest achievers. For the most part, the universities they teach in are struggling to keep up in a harsh, competitive world, or else simply pootling along. As for typical American alumni, unless they make it to grad school, most of them eat out at Wendy’s, live in homes with plastic siding, call up porn on the Internet and put out signs in their yards saying, ‘Live Free or Die!’

But India and China? Now there’s the future!