The infamous headline "Fog in the Channel – Europe cut off" is no longer relevant. However, the Channel still appears substantial to many and is comparable to the "pond," the term anglomania enthusiasts use to describe the Atlantic and the "special relationship" between Britain and America. This is particularly true in universities, where Britain perceives itself as having little to learn from the rest of Europe and, instead, claims to be the leading force in shaping the continent’s academic landscape.
The United States, on the other hand, receives unwarranted admiration from the UK, which fails to see that some of the world’s worst universities also exist in America. British higher education is often amiss with its belief that Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, are the prototype for American universities. In fact, educational institutions such as California, Michigan, and Wisconsin State Universities are what the American higher education system should aspire to in terms of academic excellence and affordable tuition fees.
Britain perceives itself as superior to other European universities in several ways. First, British universities are not part of state bureaucracies but have autonomy, providing more freedom to negotiate better pay and conditions, choose courses, and develop degrees. Second, British universities are entrepreneurial, financially independent, and have been encouraged by successive governments to be more pro-market. Finally, British universities consistently perform better, according to many global league tables of "top" universities, and can afford to select the most capable students.
These assumptions of superiority are fragile, given the laughably outdated stereotypes of other European higher education systems. While many European systems have retained a more vocationally focussed, business-aligned, and market-oriented institutions, the UK abandoned these types of schools 20 years ago when it converted polytechnics into universities. Furthermore, the academic quality of British universities is difficult to gauge precisely, as league tables’ emphasis on global "brands" is often Anglo-centric in nature. While some subject-specific citation indices show that our fellow Europeans produce high-quality scientific material, we have a weak understanding of other European countries’ higher education systems.
Furthermore, there is little difference in student entry requirements in practice between British and other European universities. The UK has a larger tertiary education system with higher participation rates than many of its European counterparts. In some subjects, all applicants are accepted, making it easier for students to obtain admission into university. Similarly, universities in France that require their students to pass a stiff entrance exam are regarded as highly regarded. Therefore, if there is a gap between the UK and other European universities, it appears to be diminishing rapidly.
The Bologna process, which aims to harmonise degrees throughout Europe, is in its twelfth year and has encouraged far-reaching reforms in universities on the continent. The Germany-based Exzellenz initiative, which provides more funding to institutions that perform well, is more manageable than the UK’s complex research excellence framework. Many Central and Eastern European countries are more accepting of private higher education than the UK. The Bologna process has also been used to promote a powerful European higher education "brand" as an alternative to the American model, which places greater emphasis on market responsiveness than the public good. In conclusion, the UK’s perception of European universities as inferior to their own institutions is slowly becoming antiquated.
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