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Debating the price of an education

Geoff Johnston | Tuesday, December 2, 2003

We’ve reached the end of the beginning here at Oxford: the last week of Michaelmas term. With the end of a term comes more work and thus less free time, so I won’t be able to provide any literary snapshots of interesting sites in and around England. No Shakespeare. No Brussels. No Philip Glass concerts (that’s next week). No Alpine ski trips (also, next week). Instead, I’ll talk about “top-up fees” (forewarned is forearmed):”Yeah, we heard about all the perks you Americans get.”I started laughing.He was talking about the Thanksgiving meal that the New College Americans had been invited to. The Warden, Alan Ryan, had been a professor at Princeton for the past decade, and he knew the importance that Americans place on Thanksgiving. So he had treated us to a turkey dinner in his lodgings.I responded to the above remark by pointing out how much more we Americans pay to attend university. The big issue around here right now, excepting the war in Iraq and the incessant Bush-bashing, is whether or not universities should be allowed to charge “top-up fees.” There have been rallies and picket lines in London. Students talk about the legislation over their daily cups of tea in the hallways. Currently, students in Britain have to pay, at most, about 1,500 pounds – roughly 2,500 dollars – to attend any university in Britain.The government has proposed to allow universities to charge their students up to 3,000 pounds per year, based upon the student’s ability to pay. The first time I had heard about this controversy, I didn’t believe that I had the figures correct. When I tell students how much tuition is at Notre Dame, their stares are priceless. But no, there is an uproar about having to pay, at maximum, 5,000 dollars to attend Oxford, Cambridge or any other English university.Certainly, there are convincing arguments for state-supported education. Some propose that all students should have an “equality of opportunity” to attend university and that the most practical way to achieve this equality for all strata of society is that universities should be taxpayer-supported. Another argument posits that students shouldn’t be forced to burden themselves with debt, because debt might be a disincentive for choosing a rewarding but lower-paying profession. When I think of all of the Notre Dame students footing huge bills and signing for student loans, and all of the students who forego their life-long dream of becoming, say, a zoologist because of its impracticality, I admit that the flat-fee universities’ scheme has definite appeal.However, Oxford, among others, is convinced that unless it is allowed to charge fees, it will continue to fall behind the “prestigious Ivy League” universities in America. I have found that Oxford’s services are, indeed, poor compared to Notre Dame’s: their recreation facilities lack equipment (their main weight room has two bench presses), their computer rooms are tiny, and their libraries close at 10 p.m. So, even from what I have seen, there is a funding shortage. What’s to be done?Well, the solution that will probably be adopted is, of course, a compromise: universities will be allowed to charge fees, but students will not have to pay those fees unless they meet certain criteria, such as earning more than 20,000 pounds a year. For those students who choose lower-paying jobs, society will pay for their education.What is at least as interesting as the actual fees debate is the fact that both sides refer incessantly to America as a standard of reference. For the free universities position, people claim that the high costs in America are a disincentive to poorer students, and that there exists a two-tier system in America of rich universities and poorer ones. The proponents of top-up fees cite American universities’ huge endowments and professors’ (comparatively) lucrative salaries, they note that the United States spends a higher proportion of its GDP on education than almost any other country and they comment on the prestige American universities hold throughout the world.America seems to be the standard of reference for almost every debate, from economics to politics, from sports to entertainment. I’ve found that one of the most enlightening aspects of studying abroad is to see America “from the outside in.” America looms large in almost every debate here in Britain, whether as the villain (usually) or as the exemplar.On a final note, did you ever wonder how foreign students perceive Notre Dame? There are three reactions when I tell students here that I attend Notre Dame: Some look puzzled, some ask, “Isn’t that an Ivy League school?” and for some, their faces brighten and they ask, “Like in that movie Rudy, right?”For the first group, I try to explain where South Bend is. The second group I correct, saying, “Now, would I go about insulting your school?” and to the third I just shake my head and say, “Yes, like in Rudy.”Who would’ve thought students here have seen Rudy?

Geoff Johnston is a junior currently studying at Oxford University. His column appears every other Tuesday. He would like to wish everyone good luck on finals and a merry Christmas. Contact him at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The Observer.