By Richard Vedder
I am vacationing in Europe, and my sidekicks Bryan and Andy are carrying on very nicely in my absence. But I note some international similarities in discussions about universities in Britain, where I am now, as well as some differences. I ate dinner last night with David Shaw and my friend Lew Uhler (and our wives), and David was on pins and needles, not sure whether his son would be admitted to Cambridge this fall --less than two months from now. Decisions come much later in the U.K. Admission is also based strictly on merit, not name or family worth. I suspect that colleges are operating on more meritocratic principles in the U.K. than in the U.S. Oxbridge is still the path to success, but admission to the great schools depends very,very much on performance.
The headline in today's Irish Times is about doing something about college costs. I fear the Europeans are following the American path. First, a good thing: they are charging students more and more of college costs. Second, a not so good thing: they are making loans available in large amounts, giving colleges incentives to demand large fee increases financed from student loans. While I applaud the effort to push the cost of colleges onto students who derive the benefit, I believe that this likely will lead to a cost explosion and indifference to efficiency that is a hallmark of the American university.
Another thing emerged from my discussion with David, a former M.P. in the British Parliament. He is worried about the loss of a common core body of knowledge about our western heritage, about declining student knowledge about historical events, etc. It is interesting that we count Anne Neal among our mutual friends. One justification of public subsidies for higher education is that it provides knowledge that is sort of a glue that binds us together, making the whole (the nation, our civilization) greater than the sum of the parts (individual citizens). National unity and cohesiveness depends upon having shared experiences and knowledge -- which is what general education provides. Shaw is worried about that, just as Labour back benchers still are furious with Tony Blair for putting in American-like tuition charges at British universities.