Do the rich go in search of really high tuition fees?
Here’s an interesting analysis. Professor John Holmwood of the University of Nottingham has suggested that the top-of-the-range fees charged by the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews will act as a magnet for very rich students, enticing them away from the likes of Oxford and Cambridge as these charge £9,000 less over the full degree cycle. As a result, the two Scottish universities will be swamped by super-duper-rich English students, who will crowd out the Scots (who don’t pay fees) and hugely upset the local population with their plummy accents (well, he didn’t say that last bit, but you get the idea). There is no sign in the report that Professor Holmwood is using any empirical evidence to support his contention.
To avoid any doubt, let me say that I am not suggesting that high tuition fees are desirable, but I am strongly sceptical of the idea that high fees are seen by anyone as a reliable quality statement. Overall in Britain some universities appear to have been attracted to the notion that unless you charge high fees people will assume you’re not much good. In this frame of mind, universities would set fees not in order to cover their costs and provide room for investment, but in order to place a designer label on their degree programmes. So if you follow that logic, a university which is, say, around number 90 in the league tables can at one stroke remove the difference with a university at, say, number 5 by ensuring that it charges the same fees or a little more. The subtext of all of this is presumably that the rich are thick.
There is an urgent need for a proper analysis of the case for and the impact of tuition fees, and of pricing methods in higher education – assuming that (as in England) higher education is not entirely funded by public money. But the idea that price of itself is a guide to quality needs to be nailed, not least because it is an exceptionally stupid idea. It does not become more intelligent if it is used by those arguing against tuition fees, as is apparently being done by Professor Holmwood.