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Does Europe Have Education Envy?

This is a guest blog post by our long-time reader and commentator Pat Patterson, who has studied Classics and Ancient History at the University of Southern California has been and currently is a teacher in the Orange and Los Angeles counties for the last 16 years:

Judging by the recent article in Businessweek by Jennifer Fishbein titled, Europe Falls Short In Higher Education, one could assume that Europe's leaders are desperately casting about for ways to emulate the international recognition for superstar status accorded to US and UK universities.  The basis for this view rests primarily on the recently released results of the Shanghai Jiaotong University Academic Ranking of World Universities.  Of the top twenty universities in the world only Oxford and Cambridge in the UK and Tokyo University in Japan were represented and all the rest were in the US.  This should hardly be surprising as the independence, competitiveness and deep pockets far eclipses most other universities.  But it should be noted that the methodology used is heavily weighted by counting up the citations, written in English, in three areas, Science, Social Science and Arts & Humanities. The reliance on English citations would certainly predispose that universities that were part of the Anglosphere would have a big advantage.

Alas my beloved USC staggered in at 50th but as of Sunday night we are still 1st in football.

However this ranking is a very slender branch to sit on to claim that,  "...Lack of financing is a key weakness."  And to continue that the EU spends 1/5 as much per pupil as the US does and also to call for an increase of 1% as a way to close the claimed gap between what the US spends and what the EU spends.  The article mentions the figure of 1.3% for the EU and 3.3% for the US but these figures completely contradicts the Digest of Education Statistics (pdf) which show that the gap between the major European nations ranges from the low of 4.4% in Germany to 5.4% in the UK and France with 5.8% (which is the same percentage as the US).

So obviously the percentage can't be the problem but the size of the respective economies is where the US has a huge advantage.  The US can spend almost 16% to 20% more per pupil even when taking into account the relative size of the populations. The article goes on to claim that the European nations recognize this problem and are now beginning to try different solutions.  Increases in funding tied to performance and autonomy are argued as the best solutions. 

But the kind of autonomy that US universities have, either private or public ones financed by the individual states not the national government, would seem to be non-starters in Europe owing to the very nature of the central governments.  To let a president, rector, chancellor or provost of some university in Europe determine where to spend the funds from the state and any funds that his university might raise would mean that a group of trained bureaucrats would have to give up that power.

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Don S on :

"So obviously the percentage can't be the problem" The table was entitled "Public Direct Expenditures". The US spends much more privately upon higher education than any European country I am aware of does, although certain forms of private expenditure in Europe may not be accounted for. I think that is the major gap between European spending and that of the US. However, some of the gap may be structural. Europe may be spending more on the secondary sector than the US does - I'm not sure. I'm also not sure whether Les Polytechniques are included in the French figure, though probably they are because 'ordinary' French unis are notoriously dreadful.

Don S on :

"governments. To let a president, rector, chancellor or provost of some university in Europe determine where to spend the funds from the state and any funds that his university might raise would mean that a group of trained bureaucrats would have to give up that power." Hmmmm. I think it might be possible in some countries but not in others. France and Germany have strong traditions of local government & perhaps this could be extended to the unis. In the UK the central government seems to control everything - or try to.

Pat Patterson on :

I couldn't find any really reliable statistics on the breakdown between funding for primary, secondary and tertiary education. Her figure of a $12,000 for Europe and $50.000 for America couldn't be verified for tertiary spending, doesn't seem plausible as Germany and France have made huge increases in budgeting for an increased number of college graduates. But I would agree that there is probably money coming in from hundreds of sources that are simply not counted into the total and that spending in the US could even be greater than reported. Yes, the Polytechniques are included, but from the early 90's have received large budget increases to expand both the number of students, the physical plant and the quality of the degrees earned. Sarkozy recently mentioned a goal of 80% of college age students completing a degree. I'm not sure if that is 80% of the current number of students in college or that he meant 80% of all French citizens of colege age. The inidvidual academies in France at the public colleges do have a certain degree of autonomy but they all still report directly to the central government. Germany does have a system more like the US, with the responsibility for education local. But the German states also seems strangely not as agile or aggressive as state schools in the US. No huge fund raisers or the stealing of star professors for example. The UK do have some local control through the councils but funding and curriculum still are sourced from the central government. My comment on the possibility of the devolution of school authority rests more with observations on human nature than on any real evidence.

Reid of America on :

Is there any analysis that seperates science and engineering from liberal arts? It seems science and engineering would be more sensitive to funding levels than non-capital intensive fields of study.

SC on :

Pat, I can see that the article and the reports you cite concentrate on funding. But have read anything in these reports that address structural issues, perhaps apart from funding? Seen from the ground level within my institution and field, I continue to be struck by the relative lack of opportunity available for much young talent within many European university systems. US universities at the first and second ranks continue to absorb much young talent from around the world. I've seen this first hand. And while this can be related to funding levels in Europe, it seems in many cases to be a question of structure. My understanding, for example, is that within German universities the number of positions by rank is effectively fixed by government mandate. Nothing like this exists, that I am aware of, at the university level in the States.

Pat Patterson on :

I pretty much stuck with funding and autonomy as the original article seemed to recommend as a curative for the lack of placing of mainland European universities on the list. The methodology I described earlier is weighted toward international awards and prizes but mostly to citations. The awards and citations are some 70% of the total and the humanities are only a 1/5 and limitations are placed on how much the citations count. This will not help the school that has an excellent film department, football team or English literature department. The number of science degrees has risen in all three countries, not to sure about the numbers in the rest of Europe. But France loses a significant percentage of its graduates to the UK and the US while German graduates unless fluent are underemployed because of the high rate of unemployment and the rather rigid job market(for example the very real threat of mass layoffs at the German part of Airbus can't be to encouraging for recent graduates). Meaning that there are few openings for new hires and an institutional hostility to replace expensive older workers with younger and less expensive workers. While SC points out that within universities the length of time needed to acquire a degree keeps employment down as well as the lack of scientific research centers being attached to the universities. France has the money for research but doesn't have these centers within the schools while Germany has many research institutions cooperating with the universities but doesn't really fund them. The UK has the centers and the funding but concentrates both at Cambridge and Oxford.

Anonymous on :

Yes, education envy!

Nomad on :

as far as France is concerned, seems you forgot to mention the "Grandes Ecoles", which are private and costful. They make a severe selection. and don't appear in the quoted stats. as far as the excellency, they count among the best evaluations in the world

Pat Patterson on :

The Grandes Ecoles are indeed fine institutions but they have little impact beyond France. I didn't forget to mention them but they didn't rank very highly according to Jaiotung University. They are a mix of public and private schools that sometimes do not award degrees at the end of the students courses. Only a few are private and independent like some American universities but most are under the direct control of either the Ministry of Education or the individual departments, finance, military, etc. They are not on the rankings list because they do not score well according to the methodology used. They have produced few Nobel winners and scored extremely low on research and the subsequent citations that research generates. The equivalent in the US would be some of the semi-independent graduate programs of business and management. The top ranked French universities, at least in the top 100, Universitie Pierre and Marie Curie, Universitie Paris-Sud 11, Ecole Normale Superieure Paris, and Universitie Louis Pasteur Strasbourg. These are mostly science, medicine and research schools except for the one Grand Ecole on the list, Ecole Normale Superieure Paris, which does have a science program but is primarily focused on international relations.

Don S on :

The Grande Ecole called the ENA is arguably the equivalent of an MPA program in the US, and its track record would make it probably the best public administration school on the planet. France's record whilst controlled by graduates of the ENA is another matter - a reason perhaps why the curent Presidetn of France is not an ENA graduate.....

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

"France's record whilst controlled by graduates of the ENA is another matter" Absolutely!!! The ENArchy is a problem. Besides, does ENA really have such a good track record in the business world? Any leading CEO (currently working outside of France) from ENA?

Pat Patterson on :

That's why I used equivalent and not equal. The head of the country might very well be from outside the pale but the bureaucrats all speak the same secret language and know all the identifing handshakes. The Presdient is only temporary but the bureaucracy is forever.

Nomad on :

but in our "low universities" some scientists made major discoveries, Institut Pasteur isolated the HIV virus, lately in Poitiers (a minor scientist university) it is said they found a vaccine against the "mucoviscidose"... wasn't that rank that our universities get because of our controversed policy though

Pat Patterson on :

I can only refer back to the link that gives the rankings since inception of the study as well as the methodology. Many universities rank lower simply because there are not enough citations in English to move them up on the list.

Nomad on :

OK Mr Patterson, nevermind one more EU reward http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071009/ap_on_sc/nobel_physics

Pat Patterson on :

I would expect an argument to break out between University of Paris or Universitie Paris Sud as to who should get the credit of Dr. Fert's shared Nobel Prize. I suspect that Universitie Paris Sud will gain the credit as that is where he obtained his doctorate and still is listed as a full time professor. Though it appears, via the Nobel Prize Committee press release, that he spends most of his time at the government funded National Research Center. Whereas the credit, though a Czech by birth, for Peter Grunberg will most likely go to his alma mater, the University of Darmstadt. Which is not on either the top 500 universities in the world nor the top 100 in Europe. Grunberg his published extensively in English and will be cited often which will lead to the increased ranking of Darmstadt in the future.

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