The deadlines for prospective UK and US undergraduates have arrived. Choosing which higher education institution to attend is a daunting task for a prospective student – the majority of whom are between the ages of 16 and 18.

While all UK secondary schools have a University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) representative, this is often a purely administrative role. With limited support, prospective students have to decide on an institution to attend and a degree to study – a task fraught with conflicting information, varied incentives and an important financial decision.

Typically, students have chosen universities at home in the UK, but undergraduate application rates have fallen 4% in the last 4 years. On top of this, a number of reports have recently declared the ‘falling status’ of UK universities on a global scale.

When the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) Global Rankings published their league tables in June 2017, the results were damning for UK universities: 51 of the 76 UK universities that appear have fallen at least one place in the last year, including 11 of the 16 Russell Group (UK top-tier) institutions.

Traditionally US universities have been labelled as over-priced alternatives to their UK equivalents, but how true is this today for the next generation of college students?

Attendance rates are steadily rising in the US. Is the quality of higher education better or more appealing in the US despite the cost? What implications does this have for free education?

The World Rankings

University rankings alone are untrustworthy. Statistics are just numbers; they only become meaningful when they are given that power by individuals. Of the many global rankings, the most ‘recognised’ university listings are from Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE) and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).

To rank institutions, the reports collate information from a variety of influencing factors and compute an overall ‘score’ based on their own specially designed algorithms. QS, for example, determines the ‘academic integrity’ of an institution based on the influence of faculty staff, citation counts and ‘academic reputation’.

They also take into account ‘employer indicators’ (reputation of the university to employers, graduate employment rates etc.), ‘student indicators’ (enrolment and satisfaction measures) and ‘international indicators’ (number of international students).

The process is thorough and statistics such as ‘number of international students’ cannot lie. Yet because all rankings employ different methodologies the outcomes vary: QS lists Cambridge in 5th place and Oxford 6th; while for THE, Oxford is 1st and Cambridge 2nd.

Radcliffe Camera Oxford in the sunshine
The University of Oxford ranks differently in a number of studies. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

What is important to remember is that university ranking scales are ordinal – 1-50 might seem far apart, but they may be extremely close. The difference between a university ranked 45 and a university ranked 245 might, in fact, be minimal.

It is important to appreciate that ranking scales will be affected by methodology – many of which are complicated, use intimidating algorithms and operate in completely different ways; according to Nello Angerelli of the University of Waterloo, “there is no authoritative single source of information”.

The prospective student has to understand universities through the eye of an outsider, in particular the reputation of a university. Unfortunately, ranking tables are unable to paint a representative picture of prestige, and employment rates (a popular measure) give a totally unrealistic view of who and why people are employed in the real world.

Financial status of institution

University financial frameworks are like Pandora’s box. The fall in attendance at UK universities could in part be down to the rise of tuition fees and living costs, something which the Labour Party are eager to counter.

According to the National Union of Students, the average annual cost of attending university in the UK is well beyond their 2010 estimate of £10,000 per annum since the tuition fee cap rose to £9,000. Now, Top Universities estimates the average annual cost of attending a UK university to be around £22,000 per annum.

Harvard university in the sunshine
The University of Harvard has an endowment equivalent to the GDP of the Cote d’Ivoire. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The US, on the other hand, is renowned for having extortionate tuition fees and universities have infamously large bank balances. According to an HSBC report and Top Universities in 2016, the average cost of attending US university is anywhere up to $60,000 (£44,000), with an average of $33,125 going towards tuition.

If the cost of attending university in the US is double that of the UK, the question remains: is it worth considering a US institution if the only discerning factor is a slightly higher place in global league tables?

Financial decisions facing US undergraduates

US universities have a staggering amount of money; this is no secret. Using tuition fees, donations and grants, US universities pump money into endowment funds.

With this money, the universities operate like businesses: they make ‘safe’ investments with up to 5% of their endowment fund asset values to increase the amount in the fund.

How these investments are spent is often dictated by donors, who may restrict money solely for the purposes of scholarships or bursaries. 5% does not sound like a lot, until you get into how much money US universities have in these funds.

As of 2017, Harvard has an endowment fund totalling upwards of $34 billion, while in the fiscal year ending June 2016, Harvard distributed $1.7 billion in endowment funds.

Harvard currently has a potential annual expenditure equivalent to the GDP of San Marino, and an endowment fund equal to that of the Cote D’Ivoire.

There are over 2,000 universities in the US with varying endowments of up to $34 billion, each choosing how they spend their 5%. In 2016, the total endowment funds of US universities was over $515 billion – and that was only from the 805 participating institutions.

If we were to place US universities on the global GDP scale, they would have the 22nd largest economy in the world.

The financial chasm between UK and US universities

A lot of academics and lecturers are drawn towards the US universities because of funded research opportunities and wage-earning potential. In the UK, according to THE, the average salary for a university professor has risen to around £79,000 per annum (and as high as £114,000).

college american football teams scholarships
US and UK universities offer large sports scholarships for some students to afford fees. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

In the US, this average is about $114,000 (£88,000) with top tenured professors earning as much as $207,000. In academia, those professors that wish to make a successful career may choose to work in the US, thus drawing key scholarship away from UK universities and into US employment.

In 2011, the New York Times published an article showing that the number of non-US academics working in higher education increased from 85,000 to 115,000 in just 10 years.

More important is the money and support US universities reserve for extra-curricular talent. According to Fluid Review in 2015, 82% of students in the US received some form of financial aid towards college (this includes federal aid – different from a UK student loan).

Over $1 billion annually goes towards sport scholarships – almost equally distributed between men and women (52/48). Students can also apply to private scholarship schemes, corporate scholarship funds and combine these to reach a total amount of more than their living cost.

Conversely, UK universities are almost entirely funded through private means (or student loans), with scholarships and bursaries coming directly form institutions, many not openly advertised.

Perhaps free university education is not a good thing, then, and free education waters down the quality of academic tuition a university can offer when truly equal opportunities can be found through alternative means.

Where does this leave the prospective student?

The state of UK universities may appear to be dwindling on the global stage, but many top-level universities still maintain their notoriety in the eyes of employers and academics around the world.

What is more startling is the decline in student attendance at UK universities and the lack of financial support to staff members and prospective students.

As a result, there is growing prevalence of UK universities offering unconditional degrees to entice students into study. While the US offers courses that are longer and far more expensive, the model appears to be working within the US, loan debt aside.

The allure of US universities may continue to call out to prospective British students and staff, but there lies a deeper issue: the academic decline of UK universities. While this may not affect the prospective student, it may affect the next generation of graduates.


  1. Well-researched and intellectual. What is the purpose of a university? A standard for employability? Preparation for a career path? An institution to create “well-rounded” individuals? A marketing ploy?


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