The University of Durham is in the famous cathedral town in the north of England.
The University of Durham is in the famous cathedral town in the north of England.

Once I was due to fly to Nigeria but when I arrived at the departure gate the airline representatives were individually informing the business class passengers that the seats had been oversold.    I had lot of experience with overbooked flights when I lived in the Middle East so  I already knew what had happened to my seat. Someone from first class was sitting in it. I knew it was essential to  procure a  boarding pass before the economy passengers turned up and began dueling for the seats they had paid for.  While many of my fellow passengers were berating the staff  I happily accepted an economy seat.   I spent the cramped eight hour flight sitting next to a VIP wife who was so tall I had to pole vault over her legs to get to the toilets while she was sleeping. When I returned her eyes were still shut but her surplus shopping had mysteriously moved into  my leg space.   Once the  flight landed we heard an announcement requesting Prime Minister X to  identify himself. A dignified man strode up from the  back.  It may have been economy but we were certainly in the best of company.

Another time many years ago I was flying back to Tunis from a weekend in Rome.  The second the boarding  announcement was made  the Tunisians rushed the gate. As a Tunis resident I did the same looking back sympathetically at the restrained Italian tourists. I did not know how to tell them in Italian that their boarding passes would not help them. They did not understand the system.  I hope they managed to find a flight for their holiday because they certainly were not on the plane when it departed.

I can not think of two stories more aptly suited to describe the situation of  students in countries where college places are allocated by the state as the sole or major funder of their universities. The UK is such a country through the minister for higher education. In the previous post I noted that although college begins in the autumn, the results of the qualifying national exams are not published until the third week of August. Colleges therefore offer conditional acceptances based on the attainment of specific grades. If it is a bad year, students achieving the required  grades may still not  get into the college that “accepted” them because of  too many “A” students chasing fewer places due to government cutbacks.  This is complicated by the fact that foreign students can pay nearlyfour  times the tuition of a British student creating a huge incentive to increase foreign student places.  As for British students,  if  their grades are not picture perfect they may fall off the ladder altogether. In August of this year the government warned that thousands of qualified students would be unable to secure a place altogether and suggested that young people  be more flexible in their college plans delaying them for a few years.  Numerous articles bitterly pointed to the fact that officials offering this sage advice had themselves never needed to be “flexible” since places were plentiful in their day.   So British straight “A” students are a little like the business class passengers on the flight to Nigeria having to settle for a new reality in seating arrangements.  However, they had a major advantage  if their grades were properly predicted to be an  “A”  to begin with.

Who predicts the grades? The students’ teachers do.   Finding  the idea of predicted grades outmoded or just plain bizarre? Many in the UK agreed and in 2004 the Government appointed a commission headed by professor and college president Steven Schwartz,  an American with ties to Australia.  The sobering report found that  50% of predicted grades were wrong yet admissions depended more on predicted grades than on  examination results.  That was six years ago and the accuracy of predicted grades  may or may not be better but the main finding still stands:  teachers of poorer children routinely underestimate their test scores while teachers of wealthier children overestimate them. Since  offers are made based on the predictions, those students have no chance to get into the colleges their test scores say they should be attending.   They are left on the sidelines like the hapless Italian tourists with the valid boarding passes.

What happened? Well, we still have the predicted grades and greater than ever pressure on places. Part of the problem is the tremendous difficulty in changing a system that has an underlying cultural base. Think of the US healthcare system.  Overseas, the sky-high tuitions in the American university system are regularly and roundly criticized by individuals, government, media and  students.  This is different from American objections to costs which tend to be about the amounts not the cultural premise.  The style of American college fundraising including high tuitions,  development offices and tapping alumni  is as much a part of foreign distaste as the cost itself. So close to a business, so far from the ideal of imparting knowledge!  As a result many elite UK universities would love to increase domestic tuitions but fear to press the matter.   They know that higher  tuitions would place college beyond  the reach of many students in the short-term and appear  to find it difficult to articulate the major long-term benefit to students  –  the institutional freedom to provide more places and to follow an  admissions policy of their choice.  All of this leaves the  UK with precisely one private university – the University of Buckingham.

In Britain there are a number of organizations involved in the college testing and admissions process  but the entity with the greatest influence over whether students have access to a college place is the national  Government through control of the purse strings and adherence to a system of predicted grades.

So if you are bound for the UK in your studies and someone tells you there is no cultural adjustment because it is so similar to the US, you know what to say.

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