Third level: the view from abroad
How do the systems in other countries select, stream and educate students, and how do they pay for them? Our correspondents assess the degrees of difference
University challenge: Magdalen College, Oxford University. Photograph: Andrew Holt/Photographer’s Choice/Getty
Numbers up in the UK
University students in England and Wales now face bills of almost €11,000 a year. Critics said tuition fees would drive down the numbers applying for third level, but they are increasing, and people from the most deprived parts of Britain are twice as likely to apply as they were a decade ago.
The numbers going to all types of third-level institutions are expected to rise by a quarter over the next 20 years, but university budgets are facing tighter pressures. Already, most direct public funding of teaching costs has gone.
For the best universities, endowments are seen as the way to reduce their dependence on the state. Cambridge University, which has already gathered €6 billion, is preparing to try to harvest more from wealthy donors.
Prospective students are looking more to league tables before picking the university they want to attend. The University of Surrey found its numbers of applications increased by a third after it moved up the rankings in the Guardian university guide. Its achievement is now trumpeted on the homepage of its website: “I am absolutely delighted that we have reached eighth place and that all of the hard work of our colleagues has been recognised,” says Prof Sir Christopher Snowden, president and vice-chancellor of the university.
But there is concern about grade inflation. Last year 18 per cent of students gained a first-class honours degree, a rise of 50 per cent on a decade ago.
Campuses are also becoming less gender-balanced. This year the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said 580,000 people had applied for places: 333,700 of those were women and 246,300 were men. “There remains a stubborn gap between male and female applicants which, on current trends, could eclipse the gap between rich and poor within a decade,” says Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas.
Mark Hennessy , London Editor
Elite system in France
French third-level education is divided between the elite grandes écoles , public universities and instituts universitaires technologiques (IUTs), the equivalent of institutes of technology in Ireland.
About 10 per cent of third-level French students are enrolled in grandes écoles , many of which were founded in the 18th century. They are considered the equivalent of the Ivy League and Oxbridge, and admission is on the basis of highly competitive exams. Ninety-three per cent of graduates from the grandes écoles find jobs within two years.
“The grandes écoles are something very specific to France, [and exist] almost nowhere else in the developed world,” says Eric Charbonnier, an expert on French education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The grandes écoles are at the same time the pride of the French system and symptomatic of its worst failings. “The French system is led by a strong elite, but it deteriorates at the lower end,” he says.