We Need a Higher Education System Fit for a Great Nation
What makes a nation great?
Traditionally, military power has undoubtedly been a part of it. Much ancient history is almost the story of the rise and fall of the military power of tribes, leaders and empires. And it is no coincidence that historians view the Second World War as something akin to a coming out party for the United States on the world stage, or the Suez Crisis as something of a last hurrah for the British Empire. As a signifier of world greatness, power in its military form is surely one of the most potent.
Foremost among a nation’s greatness is surely the richness and dynamism of its economy. Not just measured in bald terms such as GDP per capita or the price of a currency, but also by subtler measures. The more patents a country applies for, the more inventive its population, for example. The more ships and planes leave its shores laden with goods, the more healthy its trade balance.
As another measure, we should not underestimate the power of being admired. Do people want to go there, or do those born there want to leave? During the 70s and 80s, as the Soviet Union stood militarily unchallenged but quietly atrophying from the inside, the giveaway was the gathering current of its population who were desperate to get out. When the Berlin wall came down, the pent-up demand from those behind the iron curtain to travel to the west was a potent a symbol of its decline.
Of course, another traditional signifiers of national greatness are buildings. That explains how the 9/11 attackers chose their target, or why the London Eye or the Eiffel Tower – both intended to be temporary – survived.
Culture also plays a strong part. It is surely the ability to conjure up, by superior creativity and application, creative works which win the admiration of the world and are known as the best the planet has produced. Nobody can question the place of Rodin and Picasso in the worlds of sculpture and painting, Goethe, Joyce, and Ibsen in literature, and Tchaikovsky in music, and the lustre they have lent to the world reputations of France, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Russia respectively.
And of course culture never stands still. New forms are arising all the time. Architecture, fashion, computer games, even young forms such as web design all reflect a little glory at those nations which excel at them. When Germany chose Norman Foster to design their Parliament building, or Japan became the number one maker of video games in the world (which it was until recently), a little glory is reflected on Britain or Japan in turn.
There is also a nation’s ability to offer its own ideas to the sweep of world intellectual history. The ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ of France; the American ideal that all men are created equal, and Scotsman Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand of the market – all these raise the profile of their host countries by the power of their influence. Then there are those creations and inventions which are so important they actually inform the way we measure the forward movement of history. The so-called ‘Arabic’ system of numerical notation from India, gunpowder from the Chinese, electricity from the United States.
How does a country assure its future greatness?
We in Britain tend to be oppressed by a very subtle but very pernicious limitation: we tend to think of our greatest days as lying behind us. We all know about Britain’s history of empire – and the mind naturally concludes that Britain has had its turn and that the stage of world history must surely pass to another power. But that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we do believe that Britain can never be as influential again as it used to be, then it never will. If we were to start today setting about trying to build a Britain which, once again, would take its place in history as a world power, what would we have to do to make sure that was most likely?
Surely our work would start with higher education.
Any of the achievements I have mentioned rely on superior knowledge and know-how, which relies in turn on superior teaching and learning. The ability to design iconic buildings, to invent new and better technology, register new patents, dream up music or literature which inspire millions, or new products which will be carried by the ships leaving the ports fifty years from now – all these measures have their root in superior education.
I am sorry to say that the national debate that we in Britain tend to have about higher education rarely starts from the perspective of what makes our country great. But it should and it can. The history of global higher education shows a pretty clear trend. The more money is spent on a country’s universities, the better they become. Why do American Universities attract the best and the brightest from across the world? Why do you find so many more, say, Germans studying in the US than Americans studying in Germany?
American universities are the best in the world because they are the best-funded in the world, which in turn is because they do not rely solely on the taxpayer to scrape together the funding on which they must get by. Whilst America spends nearly 3% of its GDP on higher education, Europe spends less than half that – 1.3%. These universities turn the consistently high demand for good higher education into investment, the investment into results, and the results into young people who go on to achieve things which secure America’s place in the world.
Today, after the crisis and after the debt, Britain cannot expect to get enough money for world-class universities from the taxpayer alone. Nor can it expect to put off those young people who want to go into research, the not-for-profit sector, or other endeavours which Britain needs but which render their student debt an albatross around their necks. That is why the principle underlying the graduate tax – that those whose higher education earns them more should pay more over the course of their lifetime – is right.
Our universities are the engines of so much which make Britain great. We need to invest more in them. Why would we prevent those who can afford to pay more from doing so?
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a lecturer at the University of Chicago, fellow and member of the board of directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and world fellow at Yale. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge University.
This article was published on the Huffington Post on January 1, 2012. Read it here.