Millions of teenagers are deciding where to go to university next autumn, and praying there will be a vaccine by then. As my own children veer into sight of that age, I’ve begun asking the question: “If you are 18, looking to study in English, where in the world should you go?”
The standard answer for decades has been: “The US or Britain.” That remains true for a tiny elite. If you can get into one of the world’s 20 or so highest-ranked universities, almost all of which are in the US or UK, do it. You can get an excellent education at Cambridge or Princeton. Even if you don’t, others will think you did, so the brand name will help you through life. But outside the elite, the British-American preference no longer applies. You can now probably do better in continental Europe or Canada.
I was surprised to reach this conclusion because, like most people, I had based my preconceptions of universities on outdated memories of my own student days. About 30 years ago, I did an undergraduate degree in Britain, and studied in Germany and the US for a year each, while watching childhood friends from the Netherlands pass through Dutch universities.
The advantages of British universities at the time were high staff-student ratios and frequently excellent staff. Only Oxbridge offered one-on-one tutorials, but almost all the rest had small classes, taught by academics recruited from around the anglophone world. By contrast, my Dutch friends sat passively in huge lecture halls, while professors they hardly ever met held forth in Dutch. The language requirement restricted the teaching talent pool.
In Berlin, I saw little striving for excellence. Many German students back then spent a leisurely decade at university, often as a sort of hobby while they tended bars or drove taxis. Sitting in classes of 30 students felt like being back at school. In the US, standards were higher — reading lists regularly topped 1,000 pages a week — but classes were Germanic-sized.
A lot has changed since then. Once British universities began charging tuition fees (now capped at £9,250 a year), their incentive became to pile students high. Student numbers tripled from 1980 to 2010. Since staff numbers didn’t triple, class sizes at many universities reached European levels. The world’s top 100 universities for staff-student ratios now include no British institutions, according to Times Higher Education magazine.
This autumn, despite coronavirus, British admissions appear to have hit a new record. The universities’ need to pack in as many fee-paying students as possible even during a pandemic explains the outbreaks of coronavirus now rippling predictably through dozens of halls of residence. The UK’s coming demographic bulge of 18-year-olds will probably keep student numbers rising for a few years yet.
“More will mean worse,” warned novelist and academic Kingsley Amis in 1960. Aggregate rankings of British universities in the global QS league table have fallen for four years running. From next year, because of Brexit, new European students in England will pay higher fees. They may look elsewhere, along with thousands of European academics in Britain, especially once their universities lose EU research funding.
British universities will still be cheaper than American ones. The average cost of private four-year US colleges has reached $50,000 a year, fees and residential expenses combined. A professor at a second-tier American university translated this for me: many parents are paying $200,000 to fund a child’s drinking habit. I refuse to do that.
The US and UK also have ever more restrictive visa systems, and a declining standard of classmate. American and British graduates have considerably lower average levels of numeracy and literacy than, say, Finns or Belgians. The UK is a rare country where literacy and numeracy have actually deteriorated, with 16- to 29-year-olds scoring worse than the generation above them, reported the OECD in 2016.
Luckily, ever more countries offer good degrees in English. Both Australia and Canada have recently overtaken the UK in numbers of international students. China, whose universities have growing reputations in the sciences, equalled the UK’s total of nearly 500,000 international students last year. In continental Europe, the number of English-language bachelors’ programmes jumped fiftyfold from 2009 to 2017.
European standards have risen since my day. Students can no longer hang around university for ever and, in English-language courses, the teaching talent pool is now global. The University of Copenhagen has a better staff-student ratio than any British institution.
Admittedly, there still aren’t many excellent European universities. But there are dozens of pretty good ones, located in wonderful cities, with excitingly international student populations and unbeatable price-quality ratios. Even students from outside the EU get free tuition at Norwegian or some German public universities and pay just €2,770 a year in France. Once Americans cotton on, “degree tourism” will follow “medical tourism” into US parlance.
Teens planning to start degrees next autumn should also ask themselves: who is more likely to have tamed the coronavirus by then, the US and UK or Denmark and Germany? The Anglo-American hegemony in higher education has come to seem inevitable, but it isn’t.
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first.
Get alerts on Education when a new story is published