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I am very impressed by so few readers objecting to the Julian Clary-like smutty connotations in yesterday’s blog title. None of you have dirty minds or those of you that do keep your thoughts to yourself. I am rather distracted by double entendres today as I am about to give a lecture at Edge Hill University. Until I read about what a splendid place it is (brilliant for example on widening access), I had previously associated this part of Merseyside with the phrase ‘she made me get off at Edge Hill’.

To avoid upsetting anyone I won’t explain further except to say that this reference to the station just before a terminus as a way of expressing a failure to reach the desired destination has apparently got equivalents in other cities (feel free to share).

Anyway, as I’m off to make a speech, it’s just a short post today.

I was struck by the possible connection between this point, made in a fascinating piece by Howard Hotson in the current London review of Books:

Market forces are the reason American private universities have become so expensive, but why does all the extra money pouring into US universities generate such a poor return in the rankings? Evidently, a large fraction of this funding is being invested in something other than academic excellence…..

Jonathan Cole, former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, wrote in the Huffington Post last year that in addition to fee inflation, a major contributor to the increased cost of higher education in America stems from the

‘Perverse assumption that students are ‘customers’ that the customer is always right, and what he or she demands must be purchased. Money is well-spent on psychological counselling, but the number of offices that focus on student activities, athletics and athletic facilities, summer job placement and outsourced dining services, to say nothing of the dormitory rooms and suites that only the Four Seasons can match, leads to an expansion of administrators and increased cost of administration.’

If Cole is correct, then the marketisation of the higher education sector stimulates not one but two separate developments which run directly counter to government expectations. On the one hand, genuine market competition between elite universities drives up average tuition fees across the sector. On the other, the marketing of the ‘student experience’ places an ever increasing portion of university budgets in the hands of student ‘customers’. The first of these mechanisms drives up price, while the second drives down academic value for money, since the inflated fees are squandered on luxuries.

And this article in yesterday’s Evening Standard, which exposes how many independent schools with charitable status spend a large sum of money offering their students experiences such as hunting, shooting and fishing - as well as golf, beagling and dressage.

Behavioural economics teaches us that what attracts people to products is not the same as their intrinsic merit or real lifetime use value.  So is there a danger that if universities are allowed to charge what they want, rich students price everyone else out of the market by demanding extra-curricular add-ons rather than academic excellence (after all it is much easier to assess the quality of a sports centre is standing in front of you than a three year degree course which you have not yet taken). Also, given that the Hotson piece shows pretty conclusively that, once weighted for size and per capita spending, the current UK university system outperforms that in the US, is there a danger that subsidies paid by taxpayers to provide poorer students for places will not go into quality HE teaching and research but making our richest campuses palaces for the fortunate few?


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