America's unsustainable universities

When 15 per cent of graduates default in three years, there's problems with a system.

One of the oft-repeated claims made in favour of the Government's three-fold increase in the cost of university attendence is the fact that Britain's universities are being out-competed by better-funded American ones.

The broad strokes are true, and hard to argue with. While it remains impressive that Britain has three of the THE's top 10 world universities, and 32 of the world's top 200, the domination of the top-tier by the US is clear. The country produces more Nobel prizewinners, pays its staff more, (even when counting just public universities), and invests more in research and facilities.

But where does all that money come from? Fees from the students. And where do they get the money to pay the fees? Massive student loans. And what happens when costs increase but wages don't? People start to default. A lot.

The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews:

The big takeaways from the Senate HELP committee’s report on the for-profit college sectors were that the institutions (a) are expensive, (b) produce a whole lot of dropouts, and (c) are mostly financed by the federal government. If that weren’t bad enough, they only spend about 17 percent of their funds on actual instruction, and a whole lot more on marketing — including lobbying the feds to pay their bills. A new release (pdf) from Moody’s builds on these findings, and concludes that the situation is not only bad but getting worse. Students at for-profit colleges are defaulting on their loans sooner and sooner after entering:

It may be that Britain still needs to change to compete with the US. But mimicking a system in which 15 per cent of graduates are defaulting on their lowns just three years after entering repayment doesn't seem like the best plan.

Harvard University. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.