It is time we acknowledged that we are screwing overseas students - a legacy of the bad old Thatcher days

My spirits lift as we fly into Boston. The sky is a brilliant blue, the sun is shining and there is snow on the ground. By the time I arrive at Brown University an hour later my good humour is assured. The Brown University campus exudes an attractive combination of affluence and intellectual seriousness. Oh! The contrast with any British equivalent (including Oxford and Cambridge), in these impoverished, grant-less, under-funded days. At Brown, relaxed, well-groomed and patently well-fed students stroll among the beautifully kept buildings and congregate around the manicured lawns of College Green. They cram into classrooms and lecture halls, aglow with an enthusiasm to learn.

A good number of these same students come each year as affiliated students to British universities. They pay around £8,000 each for - well, not very much, actually. Not surprisingly, they arrive at our classes in a state of advanced culture shock. No campus life, departments unaware of any contractual obligations towards them, classrooms too small to accommodate them, teachers too harassed to give them the individual attention they are used to, excessive housing costs and no proper health care (overseas students here for less than six months are not entitled to NHS treatment).

It is time we acknowledged that we are screwing these overseas students. The policy of overcharging and underproviding for them is a shameful legacy of Margaret Thatcher's bad old days - her disdain for "foreigners", coupled with her smug conviction that a British education was something any American would pay through the nose for. By contrast with the exorbitant fee charged to visiting Americans, the Higher Education Funding Council gives us an inadequate £700-odd per head for home students. We need to decide what a realistic funding level is for all students, and charge the same to everyone, please, Baroness Blackstone.

On Tuesday evening I gave the lecture for which I had been brought to Brown, at the John Carter Brown Library - an independently administered and funded centre for advanced research in history and the humanities, which houses 45,000 rare books. The library's focus of interest is European exploration and travel in the western hemisphere; its holdings include the first Latin edition of the Columbus letter of 1493, and nearly all of the earliest narratives of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and English discovery, exploration and settlement.

If Brown is prosperous, the John Carter Brown Library is palatial. My host, the librarian, could not have been more welcoming and attentive. Here, however, I ran into the downside of life in elite, financially buoyant, American educational institutions. I had fondly imagined that I would deliver my lecture to an audience of fellow scholars in order to increase the sum total of knowledge of my subject (in this case, the archival details of the fascinating collaboration between early science and fine art in the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London). In fact, I was the cabaret for the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees of the library. Of the hundred or so people who attended the annual Galletti lecture (named, naturally, in honour of a benefactor), the majority were large-scale donors, trustees from all over the United States, and the foremost connoisseurs and private collectors from the local community. Hospitality was lavish; paying solicitous attention to the rich and well-connected the name of the game. My role was to be entertaining and engrossing as a speaker (with slides), then unremittingly charming at the reception and dinner that followed.

Not such a tall order, you may say. I agree that in the interests of better resources for British universities, some well-judged fund-raising from the private sector would not come amiss. But by the time the evening was over, and the lunch with the library's fellows and trustees the next day, I was beginning to feel distinctly homesick for Queen Mary and Westfield College, London. In response to an inquiry from a trustee about the progress of work in London on the Royal Opera House building, I inattentively remarked that I wasn't really following the fortunes of an institution whose productions only the extremely rich could afford to attend. Personally I preferred the London Coliseum. My host looked aghast; my interlocutor looked puzzled. The University of London may not be wealthy or handsomely endowed, but we teachers can at least be our own woman or man on most occasions.

Back in my hotel room there is nothing to watch on TV but Monica Lewinsky. The New Yorker I had bought at the airport sported a wonderful cover of Monica as the Mona Lisa. A full year of mute screen images of that plump, dark-haired young person has apparently turned her into an enigma. What lies behind that impeccable lipstick grin? As her videotaped testimony aired, hour after hour on CNN, the answer became clear. Behind Monica's smile lay absolutely nothing at all. Desperately channel-hopping, I hit upon a new episode of Ally McBeal. Ally the lawyer heroine resembles a startled rabbit, and hallucinates dancing babies when under stress. She has divided the women in my college common room right down the middle. The milder of my colleagues hate her affected helplessness and obsession with finding a man. The tougher among us adore her as the ultimate comic send-up of the confused state in which we feminists find ourselves. Either way, she has a real knack for making us laugh at ourselves. Which is more than can be said for Monica.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think