Until now, the debate over universities has dwelt inevitably on how much students need
to stump up in tuition fees. With the release of today’s White Paper, the government will hope that the emphasis shifts to what students
receive in return for that cash. Basically, it is all about fixing a subverted market by making it more transparent. With universities good, bad and indifferent rushing to charge the maximum
possible amount for fees, the idea is that forcing them to release more information about their courses — about teaching standards, job prospects and the like — will help students
decide which are offering value-for-money. Who knows? It might even shame one or two institutions into lowering their asking prices.
All of which augurs a tremendous confrontation with the universities. Our halls of learning are already feeling
unduly burdened by the impostions of the coalition’s fees policy. Adding more demands on top could push some of them even further towards stepping outside the system altogether, severing their
ties with the state and going independent.
But the bigger confrontation could be the political one over university places. There is, after all, a possibility that the number or proportion of university students could go down in the next few
years. If so, Labour will no doubt claim that, by raising fees, the coalition has turned a generation off higher education. Whereas the coalition might say that students are making more informed
choices about whether university is for them, and aren’t being conned by the cheap courses that proliferated under the last government. Whoever wins out, tuition fees — and what they buy
— are likely to be a fractious doorstep issue at the next election.