In reality, there is no proven connection between spending on universities and prosperity, nor can there be. Those rich countries that spend a lot on higher education may do so for the same reasons they subsidise opera: because they like it, rather than because it makes them richer.The other:
This sounds heretical, but should not be very surprising. Just as people differ, so do their educational needs. An intensive three-year academic course may be just the ticket for one person, but a tedious waste of time for another.
British and European academics cast envious and wondering eyes at the American university system. It manages both quantity and quality: more than 60% of American high school graduates at least start some form of tertiary education. And it keeps standards high, too. The European Commission recently published a painstaking ranking of the world's best universities, compiled by researchers in Shanghai. Of the top 50, all but 15 were American. From Europe, only Oxford and Cambridge made it into the top 10; from other EU countries, no university ranks higher than 40....Italics mine. I was a little surprised by the suggestion that the "alcoholic yobbish culture" was a problem in Britain, not the US. Trust me, it's alive and well here, too. But anyway, choice is good.
The American system is not flawless. The diversity which makes the system so dynamic also leaves it vulnerable to abuse. In the humanities, intellectual fashion seems bizarrely distant from the real world. Many bad ideas—notably political correctness—started life as American campus fads. And budget pressures squeeze the system when times are tough. This year, the axe has fallen hard on California's public universities...
Why does America succeed where Europe fails? The most important factor is diversity. American higher education is not just more varied, but has less of the crippling snobbery and resentment that accompanies variety in, say, Britain. At the bottom of the pyramid are community colleges, offering inexpensive, flexible, job-focused courses for millions of Americans each year. They are pretty basic, and Britons sniff at them. But the difference in mentality, says Martin Trow, an observer of both the British and American education systems, is that in America “something is seen as better than nothing”.
Crucially, too, the different bits of the system fit together. As Mr Trow points out, a student can start in a California community college, earn some credits, move on to state university and finish up taking a degree at Berkeley. Such a path would be inconceivable in most countries in Europe. In France, for example, the division between the state-funded, mass-market universities and the grandes écoles is vast and jealously guarded. Britain's further-education colleges are the poorest relations of an already impoverished family...
A crucial part of competition is flexibility in setting fee income. Most European countries charge little or nothing. But fees have two beneficial effects. The first is that the university is beholden to nobody in its planning. Engineering and medicine are expensive to teach, so they cost more. Law is in high demand, so it is rationed by price at places like Harvard. But these are the university's own decisions. If it wants to teach something expensive, it can raise the money from fees, or from outside donors, or subsidise it from its endowment. It is not left, as Britain's academic managers are, wondering if it can squeeze money from the English department to keep the chemistry labs open.
Fees also mean that students are much more motivated. Underpriced goods and services are usually wasted, and university education is no exception. In a new book*, Robert Stevens, an academic who has run colleges in both America and Britain, writes of “an alcoholic yobbish culture” among students, for whom university is principally “a rite of passage”, like national service in the army, rather than an education. When Austria introduced a modest tuition fee of €363 per term in 2001, the number of students enrolled dropped by a fifth. Many, it seemed, were signing up simply for benefits such as health insurance.
But fees will also make students more powerful customers. Teaching at American universities is much better presented than in most European ones. Visiting American students are often startled to attend lectures with no visual aids, out-of-date hand-outs and droning, inaudible speakers. Such complacency will not long survive when customers have a choice.