Ever since the British universities have been allowed to charge £9250 for each student on every course, not only have the universities started to operate like commercial enterprises but their employees have started to behave like industrial workers. This has become apparent with the threatened strike of the academic staff of more than 60 universities on 25 and 26 May this year. The universities have never been so flush with money, but as is often the case, this does not lead to greater efficiency.

The Prime Minister has said that the amount of £9250 was set as an upper limit for government loans for fees which universities could charge for undergraduate courses. She had expected that universities would compete on price, as well as quality, but instead, they had formed a cartel and conspired to charge the full amount to all students on all courses. This has led to students on arts and humanities courses, which are less costly to run, being charged as much as students studying engineering, science and medicine.

With the great riches which this development has brought, vice chancellors have started paying themselves like bankers or the CEOs of large commercial companies. The Vice chancellor of a university in Bath, in the west of England, was paid so much that it caused a public outcry that led to the lady’s resignation. Universities, like most other institutions, operate best when just a little short of resources; then everyone is encouraged to be more efficient. Reducing student loans to force down fees could benefit the community in several ways.

In earlier times, being on the academic staff of a major university brought so much kudos, and a life in such a stimulating and pleasant milieu, that the salary paid was scarcely a consideration. As for pensions, no one ever expected to retire. But with the rapid multiplication of universities in recent years and their growing affluence, the contemplation of the dreaming spires is being corrupted by aspirations of the stock exchange. Seeing the avarice of vice chancellors has awakened lecturers to industrial appetites. Now they are anticipating retirement and becoming concerned about changes to their pension schemes.

Charging all students the same fee irrespective of course of study is probably the right policy but the level should be substantially reduced. There is also a case for providing a greater degree of public support so that students leave university with much lower debt burdens. Above all, a situation should be brought about in which universities can focus on performing their traditional role of promoting knowledge, free from the distractions of the market place.

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