As a current university student in the UK, this recent article in Times Online about the potential merging of British and American universities captured my interest. Given that collaboration between universities across the Atlantic has been minimal of late, the idea that we could be seeing Oxford-Yale, Cambridge-Harvard or Stanford-Bolton Community College hybrids in the not-too-distant future seems faintly ridiculous.
Which got me thinking, what could possibly be the reason for such a dramatic move? And is it at all justified? According to a recent report, the threat comes in the shape of new high quality universities in ‘China, Korea, India and the Middle East, posing a potential threat to the supremacy of western institutions’. Now, putting aside the uncomfortable fact that many of the world’s first universities actually came from the Middle East and China, the rise of high quality institutions out here can really only be a good thing in my book.
Whilst at present about a quarter of international students who study abroad choose US colleges, and around 12% choose the UK, that number is likely to drop as students choose to stay in their home countries. From a student perspective (and indeed from the parents one too) that makes a lot of sense- why travel to the other side of the world and pay exorbitant fees when you can get an equally good education much cheaper, much closer to home? Whilst I’m not going to put forward a comprehensive case for going to say Tsinghua University over Durham (though it could be possible to make a half-decent one), what really confuses me is the steps that the UK and US are looking to in order to preserve their hegemonic status.
For a start, the top end Universities in both the UK and USA are almost definitely not going to be affected by the globalization of higher education: The stature, history and reputations of the likes of Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, MIT and Yale will guarantee that they will continue to thrive even when other options come about- indeed a little more competition might actually help their cause, forcing them to improve and not rely on their background alone to bring in top-quality students. The universities that this will affect are the middle-to-bottom range universities, those that are already only really mediocre in their own countries to begin with, and in all honesty is it really a shame if the University of Hull can’t keep up with Peking University or the University of Delhi? What UK/US universities lose, students around the world gain; a greater choice of high quality degrees from interesting and improving universities all over the world.
Which brings me neatly back to where I started. Frankly I just can’t see a merging of US/UK colleges doing anything but diluting the unique character of either institution. My humble suggestion therefore is that universities from the UK and the US rather than looking to elaborate scholarship schemes, or bilateral agreements should instead invest in themselves and stay competitive in what is (thankfully) a growing market.