Who should pay tuition: British taxpayer or student?

When it comes to major British exports, pop music and children's TV programs that end in "tubbies" are typical fare. But as British universities grapple with funding problems, US schools may face a new kind of British invasion - from professors and students.

It's not time for Paul Revere yet, but defections among those in higher education are becoming more prevalent - at a time when the British government is making efforts to keep its own at home.

The modest out-migration highlights two issues causing debate in Britain: the need for better pay for professors and increased access for students, regardless of financial status. And it's prompting a closer look at whether the longstanding tradition of publicly funding Britain's universities is still tenable in the increasingly global world of higher education.

"We think we are quite in a crisis, and it will only get worse," says Michelle Haynes, an economist at the University of Nottingham in England.

In Britain, taxpayers are almost solely responsible for funding universities. But critics say that source is no longer adequate. Nor, they charge, can relying on taxes maintain Britain's place as a global competitor that attracts excellent scholars, helps finance the education of a broader swath of students, and has cutting-edge facilities.

The concern has prompted the government to ask for a public discussion on funding, and has already floated one controversial report suggesting that Britain resort to an American-style market and tuition system.

Meanwhile, top scientists and at least one student turned down by Oxford University are among those who have headed recently for the US, where faculty salaries are higher and more students have access to more financial aid.

Last month, the Royal Society, Britain's nongovernmental academy of science, reported that the number of its fellows based in the US has continued an upward trend started in the 1970s. This year, 144 of 1,198 fellows, or 12 percent, are working at universities and public labs in the US. In 1970, that figure was 5.7 percent.

These numbers "are consistent with the suggestion that there is a migration of scientists from the UK to the US," says Bob Ward, a science-policy adviser at The Royal Society. "It's not clear whether the flow of scientists from the US to the UK is as high."

Edward Berger, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., says that British schools are often "not competitive in a marketplace where recruiting ... has become like [it is in] professional sports these days."

Another hotly contested point this year has been access to higher education - particularly to elite schools - by those who are qualified but not from upper-class British families. Recent studies have shown that students from private schools are 25 times more likely to get into a top university than students from less prestigious schools.

Who can attend UK schools?

Debate flared this spring when a well-qualified, working-class student from a state school, Laura Spence, was admitted to Harvard University with close to a full scholarship after being rejected by Oxford - an otherwise minor event that made headlines and rekindled debates about social make-up and class size in British universities.

Enrollment in British universities has doubled in the past 20 years, but funding per student has declined by nearly 50 percent in the same period, says a recent report co-written by Dr. Haynes and Nottingham colleague David Greenaway, professor of economics. (According to the government, currently about one-third of the population under 21 goes on to higher education.)

At least one Ivy League school, Dartmouth College, reports an increase in inquiries from British students since the Spence case. Last month, the British government announced it will spend 20 million ($29.8 million) to help recruit students from a broader range of backgrounds.

For professors, the increase in students means more papers to grade - but no corresponding spike in salary. Today, their pay is not on par with private-sector jobs and is lower than comparable jobs in the US, according to the Haynes-Greenaway report. In 1997-98, a lecturer in Britain earned about $28,500, while someone in the comparable position of assistant professor in the US made $54,000.

"Clearly salaries are much higher in the US," says Neil Macrae, a noted social psychologist at the University of Bristol who was recently recruited by Dartmouth College. Still, he says, pay was not his primary reason for picking it.

"It's the research facilities they have and how that can benefit my career and development as a scientist," Professor Macrae explains.

Dr. Berger of Dartmouth points out that recruiting is reciprocal. In the past few years, two Dartmouth science professors have left for England. "What we're really seeing is the globalization of recruiting," Berger says.

In Britain, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals - a group of chief executives at universities - says figures show that Britain imports more academics from overseas than it exports.

Nevertheless, the British government is directing money toward keeping talent at home. On July 26, it said it plans to set aside 4 million, which will be administered by the Royal Society, in an effort to recruit and keep top scientists from Britain and around the world. They say the money, awarded starting next year, will deliver scientific "brain gain," rather than "brain drain."

The Royal Society's Mr. Ward says this "is a recognition that UK universities need to compete globally, and particularly with the US, for top academic staff."

A week before, the government put forward 50 million "to recruit and retain top-quality academic staff in an increasingly competitive global market...."

The money game

David Melhuish, a spokesman for the Association of University Teachers in London, says that the money is welcome, but "when spread across the whole of the UK, isn't an enormous amount."

In the last few years, the government has implemented tuition fees for the first time. Currently students pay up to 1,025. About a third pay nothing.

In their July report, Haynes and Greenaway suggest more self-funding for universities. A market approach - in which schools compete for students, who pay more in tuition -is opposed by many students and the government, who say charging more will further limit low-income students' access.

The report suggests that British universities need a financing option that allows them to create room for more students and to have some control over their own destinies.

In the case of Ms. Spence, they argue, Harvard has just that situation. "Those whose family circumstances allow them to do so pay full fees; those from less fortunate backgrounds receive scholarships," the report says, adding: "Oxford does not have that kind of flexibility. No British university does."

Dr. Haynes says the idea behind the report is that "the individual pays more contribution, rather than being subsidized by the taxpayer." With the extra money, "we can set up better scholarship funds [to] subsidize people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds." The authors argue that now "it is simply not possible for government to deliver a sector that is both socially inclusive and internationally competitive."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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