Thursday, January 15, 2009

A British Academic Seminar

. . . . .is not unlike an American academic seminar, except they speak with an accent (at least to this American). Yesterday I attended a seminar on "The Operation of the Market in Higher Education: Opportunities and Constraints, Experience and Ideology," sponsored by the Higher Education Policy Institute, and held at the British Academy, which is an organization similar to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U.S. The seminar was co-sponsored by Times Higher Education, the British equivalent of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and moderated by the editor of THE.

The seminar was designed as a debate between Roger Brown, former vice chancellor of Southampton Solent University, and Nick Barr, professor of public economics at LSE. Brown (who was a visiting scholar at CSHE last spring) argued for more of a regulated model of financing higher education in the UK, based in part on his experiences studying the US system last year. Barr, who is widely acknowledged as the leading economist of higher education in the UK, argued for more of a free market model, though one still regulated at least in part by the government.

As with many of these debates, the two were not that far apart in their views, though through the discussion you could certainly hear where they had sharp differences. They both articulated similar goals for higher education: expansion of access (the UK participation rate currently hovers around 50%, I believe, in comparison to the US rate of approximately two-thirds); elimination of inequities in participation among social classes; and enhancing quality. Viewers from the US will note that these are very similar goals to those articulated in our country.

The differences between Brown and Barr came down to distinctions in how those goals can be achieved. Barr argued, as I noted earlier, for more of a market approach to student financing, allowing tuition fees at some institutions to rise, with a system of need-based grants (or what they refer to as "bursaries" here) and income-contingent loans available to students in order to overcome credit constraints. Brown felt that the existing levels of fees were already causing problems with participation and equity, and increasing them even further would exacerbate these problems.

There were approximately 50-60 people in the audience, a mix of academics and policy types. I had the pleasure of talking with my first peer, Baroness Margaret Sharp of Guildford, who is the spokesperson for education for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. A very charming woman, she was quite friendly and conversant. There was also a MP, Phil Willis, who is the shadow minister for education for the Liberal Democrats. The audience was quite engaged, with an active Q&A session following the presentations by Brown and Barr. As with any academic seminar, some participants were more interested in making statements than engaging the speakers.

A couple of other notes: Anne and I last night attended the meeting of Trident, which is the parent-teacher organization at The Royal School Hampstead. We left there chuckling, as it was just like any PTO meeting in the U.S. A handful of parents who participate, the same debates about events (they're planning a multi-cultural festival and senior school dance for the girls), and they served tea and cookies. We felt very much at home.

After the meeting, we decided to explore more restaurants in Islington. We were amazed how packed the restaurants were; even though we know Europeans tend to eat later than Americans, it was after 8:00 by the time we started looking and it was a Wednesday night; even so the first few had quite a wait. We ended up at a Cuban tapas restaurant called Cuba Libre on Upper Street, which turned out to be very nice.

N.B. -- Apologies in advance for typos. I'm often working now on my computer at Birkbeck, which has a British keyboard. For the uninitiated, this means that the quotation mark is where the ampersand sign is on American keyboards, and vice-versa. The number sign is also in a different location, in order to accommodate both the pound and dollar symbols.

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