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UK Tuition Problem Needs Conservative Strategy
Adam Maxwell Jenkins • British universities have
a lot to learn.

Commencement 2004

Everyone who goes to Yale already knows just how expensive— some say outrageous—tuition fees have become in the last decade. Indeed, the latest adjustments in the fee structure for the forthcoming year by nearly all of the universities in the Ivy League make it not extraordinary for students to pay upwards of $40,000 per year in tuition, housing and living expenses. Although U.S. universities tend to soften some of the costs with robust financial aid packages, this has not changed the fact that they remain among the priciest in the world.

It may come as a surprise to learn that a similar controversy has arisen over rising tuition at U.K. universities. But while in the States we are accustomed to berating costs in the range of tens of thousands of dollars, British students are in an uproar over a proposed government plan to raise fees to merely £3,000! This represents a relatively substantial increase from the previous level of £1,125 per year, but British tuition is still only a fraction of the cost of what American students pay for their higher education. Even if you double British tuition and compare it to what a U.S. student with the most generous financial aid package will pay, British tuition remains far cheaper. Nonetheless, this proposal has proven so divisive among the British Labour party and its constituencies that it threatens the solidarity of the Blair majority and strikes deeply at the stability of the government. Throughout the controversy, British dissidents have looked to the higher education system in the States as a model for reform.

Britain’s tradition of low tuition fees has meant that universities in the United Kingdom have the unfortunate tradition of chronic under-funding, including schools such as Oxford and Cambridge, which stand beside Yale in terms of international prestige and scholarly output. None of the elite U.K. institutions can boast of figures akin to the enormous endowments of most American schools, nor can they afford to maintain their buildings and equipment at a time when Yale is undergoing a multimilliondollar renovation of many of its classrooms and colleges. Moreover, since Britain has tended not to exhibit the tradition of alumni giving which figures vitally in the financial strategy of U.S. universities, British schools have nowhere to turn to satisfy their mounting debts, which most estimates place at £10 billion. With its excess of $10 billion (about £6 billion) in endowments, Yale by comparison seems to have fewer worries.

How did this happen? What lessons can we take from the failure of British education? Surely, our own system is hardly satisfactory; many qualified students cannot afford to go to college, and certainly almost all must rely primarily on family or the institutions themselves (rather than the government) to pay.

As for the causes of the lack of alumni donations in British universities, much of the guilt goes to the socialist-informed tax policies which the British government has adopted on and off since World War II. The reckless taxation of individuals in wealthier income brackets has led many to turn elsewhere with their money and virtually all middle-class citizens to cease donating to academic institutions what little income they were spared by the government. The consequence of these policies for higher education was the complete abolition of the alumni consciousness typical in America: nearly no one is interested in charitable donations to universities, not even to Oxford and Cambridge, who only now have begun to court graduates and re-establish “diplomatic ties” with its broad and no-doubt very successful base of alumni in the world over.

But the problem remains. At a recent fundraiser at King’s College, nearly no one seemed keen to participate in the auction, which was held to raise money for the chapel and choir. Oxbridge and many other British universities have an enormously rich history, but their ability to maintain themselves in the spirit of that history is very rapidly slipping away.

Of course, it is not only the problem of donations which shall have to be addressed. Remember that the main issue facing policymakers in the UK is tuition fees, which is a parallel but distinct problem all its own.

Because of their meager endowments, British universities must charge higher tuition rates to ensure the upkeep of their facilities and the continued excellence of their programs. Otherwise, they simply cannot remain competitive with American institutions, which charge students five to ten times more and possess endowments billions of dollars greater. To prevent skyrocketing tuition rates, British universities must restore the tradition of alumni donations—and this will demand more conservative political strategies. Instead of providing higher education to everyone, while forcing taxpayers to pick up the bill, inevitably resulting in less investment of taxpayer capital back into the universities, the British government should move to privatize higher education.

The British public must realize the vast discrepancies between U.K. and U.S. higher education, both in terms of quality and cost, and recognize that there is a determinate correlation between these two features. Tuition policy has a real impact on the kind of individual produced at the end of the college process. The American student has a chance to appreciate the broader research facilities permitted by stronger funding, as well as the excellence of top-notch American and foreign (including British) professors attracted to the generous teaching salaries we offer. Furthermore, the graduate of the American university has the sense of responsibility that comes with alumni-consciousness. The socialist fiscal climate of British universities affords their students no such luxury of resources or inculcation of important values.

The British public must also begin to appreciate something else they have yet to understand: higher costs do not necessarily mean lower enrollment or privileged-students-only participation. As Sir Peter Lampl has observed in his analysis of matriculation rates at British and American schools, fully forty-three percent of Americans in the bottom income quartile go to college compared to only fifteen percent of British citizens in the same income bracket. This is in stark contrast to the putative wider access proclaimed by leftist Members of Parliament who are opposed to the tuition reform.

Lower fees do not, in the end, imply greater equality, and particularly not when they exist as a flat rate to be paid back through taxation, a policy that ensures lower public support for education in the future. Britain has a lot to learn from America as regards higher education, and if they are to sustain the educational quality of their universities into the next century they would do well to adopt the policies that have worked well here.

Adam Maxwell Jenkins is a rising junior in Morse College and Co-Publisher of the Yale Free Press.


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