Bad idea: Shopping for a degree

Now that students are, according to Peter Mandelson, "consumers", and the Tory shadow secretary for universities and skills, David Willetts, is discussing what might happen "if higher fees were being proposed", it's fairly safe to bet that tuition fees will go up.

The debate over whether top-up fees should rise has been rumbling on since they were first introduced in 2006; politicians, business figures, university vice-chancellors and unions have all weighed in. And now, the David Cameron-friendly think tank Policy Exchange has written a new report, More Fees, Please? - its title suggestive of charmingly scruffy academics singing for their supper, Oliver!-style.

Following "years of chronic underfunding", and with cuts of £915m expected over the next three years, the report argues that we need "a market in higher education". Policy Exchange refrains from suggesting a specific cap on top-up fees, but insists it should not be less than £5,000. In the report's vision of the future, the cap should be high enough that universities will not all immediately start charging the maximum amount. "After all," the report argues, why should an Oxford degree cost the same as a place at a "local, modern university, which, while probably very good, is offering something markedly different?"

As higher fees would mean bigger student borrowing, the report advocates a system of private loans for better-off students to keep the extra burden off government shoulders, and bursaries to ensure that not all poorer students are stuck at (shudder) local, modern universities. But there is no way that this system can fail to stack the odds against less well-off students. Or, rather, stack them higher than they are already: a recent survey showed that the wealthiest are three times as likely to go to university as the poorest. The Policy Exchange approach would also be a disincentive for middle-income families.

The debate about whether students should pay for tertiary education is as good as over, for now. Even the NUS is no longer petitioning against fees, and universities are still underfunded. Investment may have risen under Labour - it's now about £7,000 for each student - but it is still thousands less than 20 years ago.

But can such an elitist system - rather than, say, a graduate tax - solve our universities' problems without undermining our educational system? How high would fees have to be to bridge the funding gap? And would they improve the standard of teaching? That's a question that John Browne's review of university funding sets out to answer. Now that both major parties seem to view universities as marketplaces, and university vice-chancellors are humming the same tune, it seems likely that the answer we get will be "yes".

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN