I happened to have two American students in my tutorial class yesterday, both of whom were visiting for a semester and both of whom were from Californian universities (neither of which were part of the University of California system). I was asking how they were enjoying studying in the UK and whether or not they were paying to study here. One said that they simply paid their fees to their home university and it paid the fees here. The other was paying directly and it was costing a little more than it would have cost to spend the semester back at her home university.
We then got talking about fees at US universities and how, in the case of public universities, the in-state fees could be quite low. The University of California is a public university and the fees are about $13000 per year (these have risen considerably in the last couple of years, as a few years ago they we more like $9000 per year). I should clarify that in-state means that you come from that particular state. If you are from out of state, the fees can be quite a lot higher. The State University of New York has in-state fees of $5200 per year. Essentially US public universities can be reasonably inexpensive for in-state students. The really expensive universities in the US are the Ivy League Universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton,…), some of the good Liberal Arts Colleges, and some of the other private universities. However, as one of the students in my tutorial pointed out, only a small fraction pay the full fees as these Universities typically have excellent financial aid. She claimed that only about 15% of the students at her college paid full fees and that some of these could have received financial aid if they’d realised that they qualified. This student didn’t, however, appear terribly amused when I, jokingly, suggested that this was a great example of socialism in action.
There are two aspects of this that I find relevant to what is happening to higher education funding in the UK. One is that, as far as I’m aware, typical in-state fees at most US public university are lower than typical fees will be at most UK universities next year. The UK will go from having a public university system with relativity low fees to one of the most (if not the most) expensive public university systems in the world. The other is that even at very expensive US universities, the financial aid is very good and can provide substantial support to those who would not otherwise be able to afford to attend these universities. This isn’t to suggest that the US system is good, it’s just that to a certain extent we are attempting to emulate their system without really understanding how their system works. We are trying to introduce a free market HE system when, even in the US, the system doesn’t really work like that.
There’s also a question of why we’d even want to consider doing what is being introduced. It is true that the US has more universities in the top 100 than any other country. The UK, however, has a population one-fifth that of the US and a GDP one-seventh that of the US. We therefore, as far as I’m aware, outperform the US. We have more universities in the top 100 than would be expected based on the size of our population or our GDP. Essentially we are planning to change what has been shown to be a very effective system for producing top universities, possibly the best system in the world. We are going to attempt to introduce a more free market-like system as might be expected to be the case in the US without really realising that this isn’t how it actually works in the US and we’re going to hope that our universities get better. Doesn’t seem likely to me. Hope I’m wrong.