Monday, 27 April 2009

A growing Transatlantic divide

Returning from the States after a two week tour of four Ivy League Schools with the Oxford and Cambridge Track and Field team, I could not help but be struck by the growing differences between the English and American Higher educational systems.

I always feel that the Oxbridge Athletics traditions of Chariots of Fire are maintained each time that we go out to the States. Just as in that Oscar winning film of the 1924 Paris Olympics, we amateur Brits head out to take on the Americans with their professional coaches, structured training regimes and breathtaking facilities. Abrahams and Liddell may have beaten Scholz and Paddock in Paris, but the divide has been growing ever since. This divide extends beyond sport to the wider opportunities and facilities for study that America has to offer.

Funding is a key issue here for two reasons. The one-to-one or one-to-two tutorial system, which is the distinctive strength of teaching at both Oxford and Cambridge, is expensive and thus is threatened. Standards are maintained at Oxbridge, not by external regulation by Ofsted, but by the internal “tradition” [in the sense of traditio] that is passed on from teacher to student. There is no place to hide. You have to do the assignment or you don’t get taught - indeed, you have to do the assignment well or you get shredded. It is intense, it is pressured, it sifts the wheat from the chaff, it is Darwinian but it works. It has produced and continues to produces some of our best minds and our greatest leaders. But for how long?

Across the pond, Harvard and Yale have endowments of billions that ensure that they are able to attract some of the finest teachers from around the world. Tony Blair is currently teaching a class at Yale - make of that what you will. But it is not only quality teaching and research facilities that this money buys, their endowments allow Harvard and Yale to attract the best students from around the world. Four years at $50k p.a. does not mean that this education comes cheaply. However, these universities are able to put together funding packages that are part scholarship, part bursary, part loan, part employment by the university and so on. And as one fifth year Medical student at Yale who was $200,000 in debt put it, “If you can’t invest in yourself, who can you invest in?”

There is a real danger here of a brain drain, not only of academics and researchers, but also of students as our brighest and best join their peers from around the world in being wooed to the Ivy's. Britain's national influence around the world in part derives from the fact that it educates the world's academic, financial and ruling elites.

Just as we once ruled the world, but do so no more, there is a real danger that we will lose our place at the head of the world's educational elite and that such a loss would diminish further what little influence Britain has left in the world.

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