It’s exam time for Britain’s dons - and they’re failing, badly

I have spent much of the past week marking final papers written by undergraduates and graduates. I would guess I have been doing this kind of thing for more than 15 years now at four different universities - Cambridge, Oxford, New York and now Harvard.

There have been times when I confess I haven't much enjoyed it. Reading a hundred or so handwritten scripts, each containing three essays scribbled under exam conditions, can be quite a chore, relieved only by the occasional howler (like the Russian peasant revolt I remember being relocated by one Oxford finalist to Upper Volta, as opposed to the Upper Volga). This year, however, examining has been a positive pleasure.

This has been my first semester of teaching Harvard undergraduates and I now understand why so many of them get As. It's not all due to "grade inflation" by over-generous professors, as critics have sometimes alleged. It's because so many of these papers are outstanding - and the spread between the best and the worst is so narrow - that it's hard to insist on a rigid distribution, imposing Cs or worse on the lower third.

Returning to England, I had rather expected to find my British counterparts toiling under comparable circumstances. But no. In pursuit of a pay claim by the Association of University Teachers, a substantial proportion of the lecturers at British universities are refusing to mark examinations, or even coursework.

Now, I don't claim to be the perfect Prof. There have been times, I admit, when I've been late in returning essays; times when I've been late for meetings with students; times when I've missed deadlines for references. (As readers of The Da Vinci Code will know, Harvard professors have many responsibilities, such as thwarting the dastardly schemes of self-immolating religious fanatics.)

But, busy though I have been in the last week, it would never have occurred to me not to get my final papers marked. My students have worked hard this semester. Some of them are about to graduate and cannot do so if I don't deliver. Even if it means one more cup of coffee and one less hour of sleep, that last paper - all 21 pages of it - is going to get read and rated.

So I am frankly disgusted by the spectacle of dons downing tools. It's proof that those concerned are not professionals at all, but merely a kind of academic proletariat who conceive of their institutions as nothing more than degree factories. If I were a student, I would be furious. And many are, in a wonderful inversion of the late 1960s, demanding that their protesting professors get back to work.

This go-slow is more than merely irresponsible, however. It is also absurdly unrealistic. The AUT has been offered 12.5 per cent over the next three years; it is insisting on 23 per cent - at a time, let's not forget, of remarkably low inflation. Where do they think British universities are going to find this money? The fact of the matter is that British higher education is on its uppers, as a direct consequence of a massive expansion that has been systematically under-funded.

Forty-five years ago, the proportion of school-leavers who went on to higher education was just 5 per cent. As recently as 1979, it was still only 12 per cent. Today, the proportion is close to 45 per cent. But because British universities depend overwhelmingly on the state for funding, the resources available per student have declined steeply.

In essence, Britain has a National Higher Education Service that is afflicted with many of the same ills that afflict the National Health Service - among them, chronically underpaid staff. On average, professorial pay is less than half what it is in the United States, which is one reason why so many British academics have migrated across the Atlantic in recent years. But the idea that this problem can simply be solved with a whopping pay rise misses the point.

There is a reason why expenditure on higher education in the US is close to 3 per cent of gross domestic product, while in England it is just 1 per cent. The reason is that private funding plays a far larger role in America. Harvard's $26 billion endowment alone exceeds the assets of all UK universities combined - by a factor of roughly two. Oxford and Cambridge, the wealthiest of British universities, would rank roughly 15th in the US rich list if they were somehow relocated across the Atlantic.

Harvard's wealth today is in large measure a function of its independence. It is not that Harvard receives no money from government; a substantial proportion of the scientific research conducted by the university is funded by federal grants. But a larger share of its income comes from the returns on its huge endowment, now being managed by bond market guru Mohamed El-Erian.

Because they see that Harvard invests their money well, successful alumni do not hesitate to make generous benefactions. And because Harvard is independent, it can spend its income as it chooses. In Britain, with few exceptions, academic salaries are based on a nationwide age-related pay scale. In Harvard, each professor is paid precisely what the Dean of his Faculty or Professorial School thinks he or she is worth.

Ah, I hear you object, but what about those enormous fees? And it's true that tuition and fees at Harvard currently total $32,097, so putting your pride and joy through a four-year degree course could set you back roughly o70,000. But - and here's the key point - not if you cannot afford it. Because Harvard is rich, it can follow a "needs blind" admissions policy, based purely on academic criteria. If you get in and your family turns out to be poor, it is free. That cannot be claimed by any British institution. Oxford and Cambridge scholarships were long ago so eroded by inflation that they are now purely honorific.

Does it matter that British universities are funded as badly as British hospitals? Yes. More than most people realise, higher education has become globalised. The number of foreign students studying in developed countries has doubled over 20 years to 1.5 million. In the academic year 2004/05, the number of international students enrolled in US higher education institutions exceeded half a million.

This is beneficial in more ways than one. Not only do they generally pay; they bring talent to their host institution. In effect, there is now an international competition between the world's universities to attract the most able students, particularly at the graduate level. For the universities that attract the smartest PhD students are the ones with the rosiest futures - in other words, the ones likely to be doing the most cutting-edge research.

As Western economies depend more and more on brains rather than brawn - on minds rather than on manufacturing - elite universities have a vital role to play, not only for those working within their walls, but for the society that surrounds them. They are goldmines for grey matter; oil fields for ideas.

The truly remarkable thing is that in this global market for brains, Britain is currently the Number 2 player after the US. More than one in 10 students at British universities are from abroad. Oxford and Cambridge are the only two European universities in the internationally recognised top 20 rankings produced by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai (all the rest, apart from Tokyo University, are in the US). That is pretty impressive for a state-run National Higher Education Service.

But the question is obviously this: What kind of signal does it send to an ambitious young Chinese student when British lecturers go on strike at examination time? Let me see. How about - in big red letters - "APPLY TO HARVARD"?

For too long, there has been talk about taking Oxford and Cambridge private, but no action. For too long, there has been talk about Americanising their finances - still fragmented so inefficiently between the colleges - but again no action.

I still believe that it is not too late to start closing the gap that has opened up between the best American universities and the best in Britain. But time is running out fast - as fast, in fact, as it always seems to in the last half hour of an exam.

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