There is something deeply frustrating about many of the bright new educational ideas headlined by all political parties. I mean the 'educational tourism' ones. They are easy to recognise. Some minister or shadow minister has been on a visit to Norway, the United States or wherever, and returns home with an 'idea' for schools or universities -- whether is is how to raise the basic skills of 11 year olds, or how to increase diversity among undergraduates -- which they proceed to wave around (often accusing the educational professionals here of blindness to exciting new developments overseas).
They sometimes haven't got wise to such problems of these schemes as could be discovered by a quick trawl on google (the issues surrounding New York charter schools, for example).They sometimes don't appear to have thought about the key structural differences between one (superficially similar) system and another.
That is especially apparent in admissions to university, where the USA and the UK are really non-comparable -- for the simple reason that American kids normally aren't entering into subject specific degree programmes right away, but specialise later. So they can reasonably be selected by non-specialists (who might indeed be charged with particular targets for ethnicity, social background etc). We, on the other hand, are normally choosing students for specialised courses, to be completed in three years. You surely have to involve specialists, not general adminstrators for that.
For Universities, America is the usual stick with which the UK higher education sector is beaten. And some are truly, truly excellent (albeit different from what we expect). But not all. So it was useful to read Tony Grafton's article in the NYRB a couple of weeks ago, discussing US universities across the board. Take the time an undergraduate student spends to get a degree at even the best public universities: in a handful, 90% or more graduate within 6 years; most have a much lower rate than that... and the drop-out rate (not simply delayed completion) is much higher than anything we would be happy to accept. It should be required reading for every minister of higher education.
The funny thing is that I saw the 'boot on the other foot' a few days ago, and had a glimpse of what happens when you talk about the UK system when you dont really understand it. I was reading Martha Nussbaum's new book Not For Profit, in all sorts of ways, an excellent defence of the humanities at university level.But when she gets onto the terrible things that are happening in British universities, she is seriously misleading. True, terrible things are happening, but not quite what she implies.
"British faculty do not have tenure any longer, so there is no barrier to firing them at any time," she writes. True, "tenure" was abolished, with the result that academics can now be made redundant (and departments closed); and I am sure that has sometimes been misused. But that is NOT to say that they can be fired at any time (and of course they could have been fired before, when they had "tenure" for a variety of crimes, like "gross moral turpitude" or whatever).
And she goes on to suggest that there is no regular sabbatical system in the UK any longer and the ONLY way that we can get leave is by applying for competitive grants. Again, not true in that form.
You have to be careful when you stray into some other country's educational system.