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Coffee House

To stay in the global race, British universities may have to go private.

10 May 2013

6:53 PM

10 May 2013

6:53 PM

If the devil were to conduct an experiment into mankind’s ability to resist temptation, it would look something like Stanford University. It is built in one of the world’s most agreeable climates and everyone dresses as if they have just stepped off the beach – which lies only half an hour away. Hammocks lie between trees, as if to tempt the weak-willed on their way to lectures. There are jazz clubs, golf courses and swimming pools – and 1,700 students are added each  year, to see if they get any work done. But they do, enough to make Stanford one of the world’s best universities. In fact, 22 of the top 30 are American – and its universities are pulling way ahead of Britain in the world intellectual league tables. A big part of the reason is that America’s best unis are private, whereas ours are run in effect as part of a government higher education service. I look at this in my Telegraph column today.

I was at Stanford last week, on a Media Fellowship from the Hoover Institute. The quality of research there is extraordinary, and far more diverse  than you will find in British academia. But what struck me most was the racial mix of the students. Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 18.44.41Just over a third of its undergraduates are white (vs two-thirds of Americans). Asians are the biggest minority, then Hispanics. When a Brit thinks of American universities, we tend to think $40,000 tuition fees – but in fact private Stanford has a formula of social mobility that should shame Britain’s would-be social engineers. Its needs-blind formula grants spaces to the brightest, and then subsidises those who need it.

Just over half of Stanford students receive subsidy, and the average grant more than covers the fees. To me, this is fairer that the British system. It costs £16k to educate someone at Oxford and Cambridge. Why shouldn’t the kids pay it, especially if they have just come from schools that charge £30k? Let theose who can afford it pay the full costs of their tuition, and let those who can’t be subsidised. The American “needs-blind” system is, in my view, way fairer than the British system.

So private American universities do social justice better than the government. Stanford has worked out a formula: it goes out of its way to find bright kids from poor backgrounds. It educates them well, even . They donate generously, and if they become rich then they give as freely as they receive. Stanford raised $1 billion last year, almost twice as much as Oxford and Cambridge combined. This ‘affirmative meritocracy’ does not dilute its academic rigour: most of its departments are in the top five in the world. Stanford actually delivers the social mobility that Britain’s state-run system fails to achieve.

Google is a product of Stanford but so is Julian Castro (below), the 38-year-old Mayor of San Antonio who addressed the Democratic National Congress recently. Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 19.06.14He credits Stanford’s needs-blind admission system for his success, and that of his brother. He told the DNC that he thinks back on his classmates he left behind. “The difference wasn’t one of intelligence or drive, the difference was opportunity.” Similar ‘affirmative meritocracy’ schemes are run by Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth etc. Britain does have its rags-to-riches stories – but few of them involve clearing the hurdle of an Oxbridge entrance interview.

In theory, British universities should be more financially secure as they are funded by the government. In reality, the government is in crisis while philanthropy is booming. Stanford’s close connections with the real world help its fundraising.

photo-6Names are everywhere. It’s not the Engineering Building but the George Havas Engineering Building, etc. I even saw a coffee machine named after someone – joke (I think). Stanford’s campus is a shrine to philanthropy. New buildings seem to be going up everywhere thanks to the American government’s excellent tradition of offering cash breaks to those who give. The cash is converted into both academic excellence and social mobility – in a way that seldom happens with taxpayers’ money.

In Britain, universities are in relative decline. Only this week, a new study ranked us tenth in the world. Our academics are paid pitifully, which was bad enough in the Educating Rita days. But it’s now unsustainable in global marketplace. Let’s take two leading British academics whose names come up in Coffee House now and again: Niall Ferguson on the right and David Blanchflower on the left. They have both been snapped up by the Ivy League – at Harvard and Dartmouth College respectively, doubtless paid several times what they’d get here.

It’s a shame because Britain ends up with very few academics in public life. Our universities tend to hide their staff in ivory towers, encouraged by a government funding formula that rewards publications in academic journals. The US universities depend on donations, so they stay closer to the real world. This helps students, too. For British universities, the surest way to make extra cash is to accept higher-paying overseas students who now take 16pc of UK places, against 3pc of US places.

I was struck by just how much Stanford students studied, certainly not something I witnessed (or did) much at Glasgow. But just 4pc of applicants are admitted to Stanford, so I suspect they all feel pretty lucky. And it’s fairly easy to study if the libraries are as inviting as this one (below) and open until 1am. I also saw engineering workshops, with begoggled students still at it at midnight.


Oxford and Cambridge are facing ever-better competition from ever-richer global universities and will need to shape up. There has always been something nostalgic about our great universities, and their peculiar world of dining clubs, high tables and habit of mispronouncing basic words like ‘Magdalen.’ It is as if they salute the past because they’re uncomfortable about the future. And understandably, given their appalling levels of funding.

Their future facing all British universities is likely to involve deeper austerity and further government interference. The American private universities are enjoying the new golden age of philanthropy, expanding fast and poaching Brits. Their success demonstrates that private institutions (aided by donations) are capable of applying solutions to the social problems which have stumped governments. I wonder if there is any government in the world with a higher concentration of people who went to the same school as Britain. I’m not faulting the people who went to that school – you play the hand you’re dealt in life. But this suggests Britain can do better in tapping the potential of its young people. We need to ask: where are our Julian Castros?

The wealth of nations has never been more closely linked to the IQ of nations. Our universities are forced to compete in what David Cameron rightly refers to as a “global race.” Going independent may be their only way to stay in it.


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