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Tough times for British Universities

Around this time of year, below the dreaming spires of the famous and ancient University city of Oxford, violent sounds can be heard. When the final examinations are over, male graduates engage in a ritual known as 'trashing'. It is, I am ashamed to say, an accurate description. Several of the young men involved will probably go on to become famous politicians, or captains of industry. But at trashing time they all emerge in flowing academic robes to spray each other with champagne, raw eggs and shaving foam. It is a wild, drunken and often aggressive event. Not exactly the best commercial for British universities.

But then British universities are going through a rough patch right now. Growing numbers of intelligent students have completely rejected Oxford, Cambridge and all the rest in favour of the best that America can offer. Part of the reason may be because universities over here are about to force students to pay higher fees for their tuition - around 14,000 dollars a year each. That would be acceptable if the quality of teaching was up to scratch, but there is widespread dissatisfaction about the falling level of contact between students and lecturers, and the restrictive nature of subjects available to study.

So much is now geared to satisfying the really lucrative market for British universities - foreign students, who have to pay much more. So they are now in the bizarre situation of preferring foreigners, because they bring in extra bucks.

But, look out America -- the brighter Brits are heading your way. Applications to Pennsylvania University went up by 50 per cent in the past year. Harvard is attracting 41 per cent more interest from British students and Yale 23 per cent extra. These figures come from the Fulbright Commission which promotes Anglo-American student links.

The attraction is the quality of education. Your Ivy League universities spend almost double the money on every student than their British counterparts - that's a serious indictment of the way we do things. And although your fees are much higher, with the squeeze on Government spending over here and further university fee increases predicted, more and more of our youngsters are looking across the pond in search of academic fulfillment.

So congratulations. Our loss is fast becoming your gain. And if you fancy taking the whole ghastly Oxford trashing ceremony, we'll throw it in for free.  This is Ed Boyle for CBS News in London.

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