Blogs > Cliopatria > Niall Ferguson's Two-fer

Aug 25, 2005 10:43 am


Niall Ferguson's Two-fer



If you are Niall Ferguson*, you can take one idea, the same data, knock it off as two op-eds, publish one in England and one in California, and expect no one to notice their companionship."Don't Blame Universities for Britain's Lack of Social Mobility, Blame Schools," The Telegraph, 21 August, actually doesn't offer the telling information that would hold state supported primary and secondary schools in Britain accountable for the lack of social mobility there. But his"Still the Head of the Class," LA Times, 22 August, uses the same Kingsley Amis frame and the same data to reflect on the implications for American higher education of intensifying global competition. These two op-eds are ostensibly about two different subjects and are addressed to two different national audiences, but they are near mirror images of each other. Yet, even if some graduate assistant/ghost writer compiled this two-fer, there's nothing ethically culpable about it, so far as I can tell. You just need to be Niall Ferguson to bring it off.

But, let's look closer at the evidence:
*Below the fold

Telegraph
It was the late Kingsley Amis who famously prophesied that expanding British universities would lower standards. It seems appropriate - in a week when around 300,000 British teenagers received sufficiently good A-level results to go on to university - to ask if he was right.
LA Times
It was the British novelist Kingsley Amis who prophesied that expanding universities would lower standards. At a time of year when many students are getting ready for college, it's appropriate to ask if he was right.

Telegraph
Forty-five years ago, when Amis made his prophecy, the proportion of school-leavers who entered higher education was just 5 per cent. As recently as 1979, it was still only 12 per cent. But since the breakneck expansion of British universities of the past two and half decades, the proportion has risen closer to 45 per cent.
LA Times
Forty-five years ago, when Amis made his prediction, just 5% of British students entered higher education. Today it's closer to 45%.

Telegraph
So if Amis was right, and more does mean worse, then the deterioration of higher education should be happening on a global scale. Of course, it isn't.
LA Times
So if Amis was right, and more does mean worse, then the deterioration of higher education should be occurring on a global scale.
Of course, it isn't.

Telegraph
Universities perform a number of functions, which politicians too rarely distinguish from each other. One is to achieve economies of scale in research. Another is to ensure that the most intellectually able attain their full educational potential. A third is to promote the international exchange of knowledge.
By these standards, how are British universities doing? The answer is not badly, considering their meagre and often misallocated resources.
LA Times
Universities perform a number of functions, and politicians too rarely distinguish one from another. One function is to achieve economies of scale in research. Another is to ensure that the most intellectually able young people attain their full educational potential. A third is to promote the international exchange of knowledge.
On this basis, American universities are generally doing well, but they cannot be complacent.

Telegraph
The British experience demonstrates that it is less, not more, that means worse. Since 1976, public funding per student has declined by more than 40 per cent; private money has come nowhere near filling the gap. As a result, average academic pay in Britain is now less than half what it is in the United States. It's no wonder so many academics have, like me, opted to pursue their careers on the other side of the Atlantic.
LA Times
The British experience demonstrates that it is less, not more, that means worse. Since 1976, public funding per student in Britain has declined by more than 40%; private money has come nowhere near filling the gap. As a result, average academic pay in Britain is now less than half what it is in the United States.
It's no wonder so many British academics have, like me, opted to pursue their careers on the other side of the Atlantic

Telegraph
The real transatlantic difference is a matter of accumulated wealth. The combined investments of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge - the richest European universities - are around £4 billion. Compare that with Harvard's endowment of £13 billion - more than twice the financial assets of all British universities combined. And Harvard is not that far ahead of its American rivals. If Oxford and Cambridge were to relocate to the United States, they would rank no higher than 15th in the university rich list.
Money matters. For one thing, it buys excellence in research. Between 1901 and 1950, the top American universities were not much richer than their European counterparts. In that period, Americans accounted for just 28 of the total number of Nobel prizes awarded in the sciences. Since 1950, the top American universities have been building up their endowments through relentless fund-raising and canny investment. Not surprisingly, with their bountiful research budgets and salaries, they have come to dominate scientific research. All told, 159 (56 per cent) of all the Nobel science prizes awarded between 1951 and 1997 went to Americans. A very high proportion of the rest went to non-American academics working at American universities.
LA Times
At the top, the financial difference between American and European universities is mainly a matter of accumulated wealth. The combined investments of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge — the richest European universities — are about $5 billion. Compare that with Harvard's endowment of $23 billion — more than twice the financial assets of all British universities combined. And Harvard is not that far ahead of its American rivals. If Oxford and Cambridge were to relocate to the United States, they would rank no higher than 15th in the university wealth list.
Money matters. For one thing, it buys excellence in research. Between 1901 and 1950, the top American universities were not much richer than their European counterparts. In that period, Americans accounted for just 28 of the Nobel prizes awarded in the sciences. Since 1950, the top American universities have been building up their endowments through relentless fund-raising and canny investment.
Not surprisingly, with their bountiful research budgets and salaries, they have come to dominate scientific research. All told, 159 of all the Nobel science prizes awarded between 1951 and 1997 went to Americans. A high proportion of the rest went to non-American academics working at American universities.

Telegraph
How, then, do British universities measure up when it comes to educating our brightest young people? Has expansion been a step towards meritocracy?
It appears not. Despite the vast increase in the number of university places, only a quarter of full-time undergraduates today come from working-class backgrounds. At Cambridge, the proportion is roughly a tenth. Moreover, recent research by Gary Solon, an American economist, shows that England still has far lower social mobility than the US, to say nothing of Canada, Germany, Sweden and Finland. On average, English sons are roughly twice as likely to remain stuck in the same income band as their fathers.
LA Times
Has college expansion been — as it was intended to be — a step toward meritocracy?
The news here is less good. Despite the increase in college enrollments, recent research by economist Gary Solon shows that social mobility in the United States has declined markedly since the 1960s. On average, American sons are now roughly twice as likely as their Scandinavian counterparts to remain stuck in the same income band as their fathers. That's not quite as bad as socially rigid England, but it's getting there.

Telegraph
Statistics like these periodically prompt Labour MPs to demand improved"access" to British universities - code for some kind of discrimination in favour of working class applicants. Anxious to appease their political paymasters, the elite universities waste hours worrying about their students' social origins.
LA Times
Statistics like these periodically prompt liberals to demand improved"access" to elite universities. Yet the reality is that declining social mobility has less to do with American universities than with its high schools. It is the patchy quality of state secondary education that is the problem, combined with the rising cost of private education.

Telegraph
In the United States, 83 per cent of high school graduates from the top income quintile go to college, compared with just over a third from the bottom quintile. The best explanation for that disparity is simply that rich families can afford the private schooling that more or less guarantees their children will go to university.
LA Times
In the United States, 83% of high school graduates from families in the top fifth in income go to college, compared with just over a third from the bottom fifth. The best explanation for that disparity is that rich families can afford the private schooling that more or less guarantees their children will go to college.

Telegraph
There is one respect, however, in which British universities genuinely are increasing social mobility. It used to be that Asian students who wanted to study abroad opted for the United States. But last year - partly because of visa restrictions, partly because of America's tarnished international image - there was a 45 per cent drop in the numbers of graduate students from China going to US universities. By contrast, there are now around 38,000 Chinese students in British universities, and that figure looks set to go on rising.
LA Times
The third role that universities play is international. Here too there are grounds for concern. It used to be that most Asian students who wanted to study abroad opted for the United States. But last year — partly because of visa restrictions, partly because of America's tarnished international image — there was a 45% drop in the number of Chinese graduates coming to the United States. By contrast, there are about 38,000 Chinese students in British universities, and that figure appears to be rising.

Telegraph
No, more has not meant worse. But only a revolution in the funding of higher education will allow British universities to become what they must aspire to be: the very best.
LA Times
No, despite Amis' prophecy, more has not meant worse. But American colleges cannot sit on their laurels if they are to remain what they tend to consider themselves: the very best.

So, there you have it: two op-eds, ostensibly about two different subjects, and, yet, with minor tweaks for two different national audiences, virtually verbatim copies of each other. In the age of the internet, it's easily enough shown. Perhaps he has an understanding with the Telegraph and the LA Times that this is to be expected. Unless either newspaper claims a world exclusive to Professor Ferguson's text, it seems unlikely that he's done anything ethically culpable. At least we know that he (or some graduate assistant/ghost writer) has done it.

*Of course, this bit of envy goes below the fold! Do you think I'm nuts? In case you hadn't heard, Niall Ferguson informs us that his starship is"the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is a resident faculty member of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. He is also a Senior Reseach Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University." He has an additional affiliation with the Harvard Business School. We're told that he'll be on sabbatical leave for the fall of 2005. I assume that means that he'll be on leave from all five institutions. Here's the official website's biography, current research, publications, Courses (Spring 2006), and, yes, Niall Ferguson's Store. No coffee cups and t shirts in the latter, mind you -- not yet, at least – only books and e-lectures that can be had for a price. So can I.


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More Comments:


Rebecca Anne Goetz - 8/25/2005

I've also heard the Rothschild work was wonderfully done. But, I haven't read either his earlier or his later work, I'm afraid. The dissertation pile is too heavy as it is.


Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/25/2005

His early work was breathtaking. His recent work has suffered. It was a great pity that the last symposium at Cliopatria did not include Ferguson's article -- he deserved some criticism.


Alan Allport - 8/25/2005

I understand that his early work on government bond prices and the Rothschilds is well-regarded.


Andrew Ackerman - 8/25/2005

A *return* to scholarship? Is any of his work original?


Manan Ahmed - 8/25/2005

This is kinda like Tandoori McChicken. You tweak your product for regional flavor while keeping the central [ahem, corporate] product selling globally.

Isn't this what academics do though? Recycle conference papers and lectures? Although the rate of recycling here is quite fast. Also, Telegraph and LAT aren't even owned by the same parent company so, this a two-fer corporate deal either.

Still, more power to him. I'll criticize when I have published ONE op-ed.


Dale B. Light - 8/25/2005

Nice catch Ralph. Ferguson hasn't done any real history for years and keeps claiming that he will return to scholarship soon, but how can he -- what he's doing now is so damn lucrative. He's setting the standard for academic entrepreneurship, and it's not a very good one.