British students flocking to the US Ivy League. Or not?

An untrained brain drain?

In a recent post I commented on the press reports on the modest flow of English students to universities in continental Europe and the reverse flow of other EU students to the UK. The media seems extremely keen to report any international movement by students from the UK as evidence of a flight from the 2012 fee regime (at least for students from England). So, the Telegraph has a feature on British students turning to US Ivy League universities:

According to figures, Harvard had around 500 British applications to start courses this autumn, up from around 370 for last year – a 35 per cent increase.

Yale enrolled 36 British students onto undergraduate courses last year, up from 25 in 2009 – a 44 per cent rise. Five years ago, in 2006, just 15 students enrolled.

Some 197 students from England and Wales alone have applied to start courses at Cornell this autumn, up from 176 last year.

Information from Columbia University shows that 178 British students enrolled in 2009, up from 164 in 2008 and 151 in 2003.

Berkeley University, which is not an Ivy League college, has had 166 British applications for this autumn, compared with 130 last year.

To put this into perspective, there were over 630,000 applications through UCAS for 2011 entry to UK universities. And there were over 14,300 US students studying in the UK in 2008/09. This is, therefore, a drop in the ocean.

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Not such a good example?

“Don’t Look to the Ivy League” is an interesting article in the London Review of Books by Howard Hotson. Essentially, his argument is that a wider reading of the league tables suggest that the UK generally punches above its weight. The USA, despite dominating the very top of the table, lacks strength in depth. In short, he argues that the US model really isn’t that great an example to follow:

The top ten or 20 places typically grab all the attention. What happens when we consider all 200? No summary of the mean rankings of the top 200 universities over the past seven years is available, but we can examine the data in the THE rankings for 2010-11. In the top 50 places, US outnumber UK universities by five to one. In the second tier (places 51-100), American universities begin to lose their edge, and the proportion drops to three to one. In the bottom half of the table (places 101-200), the number of places held by both countries is much reduced, as universities from other countries crowd onto the table, but the significant point is that here the US and UK universities are virtually at level pegging. UK universities are distributed fairly uniformly throughout the table, which suggests that there is a smooth and gradual transition from the top tier of universities to the next level down, and so on. The US university system, by contrast, appears to concentrate a hugely disproportionate share of resources in a small group of very wealthy and exclusive private institutions.

The consequence of this concentration of resources in this exclusive group of elite insitutions is, according to Hotson, an endless escalation of tuition fee levels which further reinforce the position of the elite. Moreover, the increase in tuition fees is partly justified by a need to fuel a student experience arms race:

Jonathan Cole, former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, wrote in the Huffington Post last year that in addition to fee inflation, a major contributor to the increased cost of higher education in America stems from the

perverse assumption that students are ‘customers’, that the customer is always right, and what he or she demands must be purchased. Money is well-spent on psychological counselling, but the number of offices that focus on student activities, athletics and athletic facilities, summer job placement and outsourced dining services, to say nothing of the dormitory rooms and suites that only the Four Seasons can match, leads to an expansion of administrators and increased cost of administration.

If Cole is correct, then the marketisation of the higher education sector stimulates not one but two separate developments which run directly counter to government expectations. On the one hand, genuine market competition between elite universities drives up average tuition fees across the sector. On the other, the marketing of the ‘student experience’ places an ever increasing portion of university budgets in the hands of student ‘customers’. The first of these mechanisms drives up price, while the second drives down academic value for money, since the inflated fees are squandered on luxuries. To judge from the American experience, comfortable accommodation, a rich programme of social events and state of the art athletic facilities are what most 18-year-olds want when they choose their ‘student experience’; and when student choice becomes the engine for driving up standards, these are the standards that are going to be driven up.

Will it happen here? And what might be the consequences for academic standards?

Closing Oxbridge?

Not quite.

But in a recent entertaining debate in the US, it was proposed that three members of the Ivy league – Harvard, Yale and Princeton – be shut down altogether. A fanciful notion but it clearly gave rise to lots of deep-seated prejudice – largely from those who weren’t admitted in the past it would seem.

U of Ox

A similar proposition here in relation to Oxford and Cambridge (with all of their resources being distributed across the Russell Group, presumably) would attract even more enthusiastic (if misguided) support would be my guess.