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The case for higher university fees

The way to a state-managed support system for British universities that will resource them properly

Perhaps David Cameron and Nick Clegg might benefit from looking at Dartmouth in the US for some guidance on how to fund university education. Dartmouth College, named for William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, was established in 1769 by the Rev Eleazar Wheelock in New Hampshire for "the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land . . . and also of English Youth and any others".

The US Supreme Court decision in the Dartmouth College Case of 1819, argued by Daniel Webster, paved the way for all American private institutions to conduct their affairs in accordance with their charters and without inter­ference from the state. Dartmouth is one of eight members of the Ivy League of elite private universities in the US - the others are Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale. Dartmouth's motto is Vox clamantis in deserto ("a voice crying out in the wilderness"). Believe me, it is miles from anywhere.

Admission is highly competitive, with a success rate of less than 13 per cent for the undergraduate class of 2013. But it costs a fortune to attend. Undergraduate tuition in 2010-2011 costs $39,978, plus room, board and mandatory fees of $12,297, making a grand total $52,275 (just over £36,000). For a four-year degree, that's a bucketload of money. Costs are similar at the other Ivies and many other US universities.

Strikingly, almost half of the students pay considerably less than that, because Dartmouth operates a highly egalitarian policy of "needs-blind" admissions. A family's financial situation is never considered when making a decision about admission, and financial aid is based solely on demonstrated need.

If the cap fits

About 50 per cent of Dartmouth undergraduates receive a scholarship. The average scholarship for the class of 2013 is $35,500, and the university awarded $63m in undergraduate scholarships in 2009. The school places special emphasis on those from less privileged backgrounds; roughly 14 per cent of scholarship students are the first generation in college and 33 per cent are from US minorities. Those whose family incomes are below $75,000 (£52,000) qualify for free tuition - 21 per cent of the present first-year class.

Unlike Brits, Americans are willing to pay for their higher education. They are also willing, as alumni, to donate money to allow people from less fortunate backgrounds to have the same privilege. Dartmouth has an endowment of roughly $3bn and owns 27,000 acres of rural northern New Hampshire, awarded to it by act of the state legislature in 1807.

Dartmouth is very different from the typical poorly funded UK university, which has just experienced significant cuts in revenue and faces more in the future. The one hope for universities in England is that Lord (John) Browne's review of higher education funding will recommend raising the cap on tuition fees. An increase in fees would be controversial, given that Liberal Democrat MPs were elected on a manifesto promising to abolish them. However, they need to rise, by a lot, and the Lib Dems should support that change even though the formal coalition agreement allows them to abstain in any parliamentary vote on the issue.

Cutting the number of university places to save money, as the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, suggested, does not seem wise. The data from the Ucas admissions service suggests there has been an increase of 105,000 (almost 23 per cent) in university applications this year. Yet the new coalition government immediately halved Labour's planned increase of 20,000 places. This will likely come back to haunt it. Youth unemployment stands at 20 per cent and will rise as large numbers of those who are rejected by universities can't find jobs during the recession. We should be aiming to send more young people to university, not fewer.

The most recent pay data from the Labour Force Survey, for the fourth quarter of 2009, indicates that a degree is worth roughly half a million pounds in higher earnings compared to someone with only A-levels or equivalent. Most of those benefits accrue to the individual, so it is hard to fathom why society should pay, rather than individuals, if their families can afford it. Why should the 70 per cent of young people who do not go to university subsidise the 30 per cent who do?

Research by the Good Schools Guide found that a number of leading boarding schools charge around £30,000 a year. They include Chelten­ham Ladies' College, Eton College, Harrow, Malvern St James, Sevenoaks School, Tonbridge School and Winchester College. It is not un­reasonable to expect those who can afford such sums for secondary school to pay the same for their children to go to university.

Help the hard-up

The lack of funding for universities has made it very difficult for them to hire and retain the highest-quality researchers. According to the Shanghai Ranking of World Universities, only five UK institutions rank in the top 50: Cambridge (at number four), Oxford (ten), University College London (21), Imperial (26) and Manchester (41). UK universities perform even worse in the Webometrics ranking, which is based on web presence: only three get into this top 50 (Cambridge is the highest-ranked non-US university at 27, Oxford is at 37 and Edinburgh only just makes it in at 50).

I agree with Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, who wrote in the Independent on 20 May that universities should be allowed to compete on price and quality and offer improved access to "young men and women from hard-up homes". The Dartmouth admissions policy helps here; a generous, needs-blind grants scheme should be established to ensure that improved access. It is time the UK moved to a more equitable system of university funding, with the rich subsidising the poor, rather than the other way round. If you want great universities that can compete with the US, you have to pay for them.

With the new government's cuts in public funding for universities, tuition fees will have to build up over the coming years to £30,000, and probably more at the elite universities. It's time for the equivalent of the Dartmouth College Case in Britain. Set the universities free. And as in the US, middle- and upper-class parents in the UK had better start saving for their children's education.

David Blanchflower is Bruce V Rauner Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.