Taxpayers hand over £15 billion a year to universities, and students pay £3,225 a year in tuition fees. It is fair to ask providers of higher education, as the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee has done, what everyone gets in return. The answer must be comprehensive and transparent: universities, like anything else, must be accountable.
For the cross-party group of MPs attending to this question, it is the student experience that lies at the heart of the issue. The problem with personal experiences, however, is that they are just that, and extrapolating from the small sample before the committee is not scientific or helpful. Unfortunately, no one can say with any certainty whether standards in higher education are high, low or variable, because no one actually knows. There are suspicions and anecdotes, but there is no hard evidence - and no one in a position to gather relevant information appears to be bothered enough to acquire it.
The MPs say the "current arrangements with each university responsible for its own standards are no longer meeting the needs of a mass system". They recommend that a renamed and strengthened Quality Assurance Agency ensure standards, conduct inspections, rubber-stamp external examiners, oversee the quality of teaching, check assessment and remove degree-awarding powers if necessary. It would be easy to dismiss this as merely an attack on universities' autonomy, a desire for an Ofsted for higher education, especially with the chairman of the select committee being a former headmaster. But we should take care before jumping to conclusions.
Although the committee may be prescribing a dose of inspection, what the sector really needs more is introspection. There are undoubtedly problems in the system. The MPs were right to draw attention to them (as were the academics who flagged them up and who deserve protection), but the way in which they did it is open to question. Some parts of the sector work well; others do not. Everybody in higher education knows that not all universities are the same, and nor do they set out to be; that a first from the University of Oxford is not the same as a first from Poppleton University; and, crucially, that not all students are of the same ability. But how standards vary and why and how, and whether such variations matter, and if not why not - these are crucial questions that should not be dismissed.
For this reason, the vice-chancellors who appeared before the committee did themselves and universities no favours by refusing to even acknowledge that there was an issue. MPs rightly took them to task, accusing them of a "defensive complacency". When asked how did they know standards were being maintained, the answer "because overseas students still come here" was hopelessly inadequate. If foreign students fail to materialise in the autumn, will that say nothing about swine flu fears and adverse exchange rates but rather indicate that standards have suddenly plummeted?
Universities have to face the facts. There are problems: not everything in the groves of academe is rosy. The most important threat we face is not to the sector's autonomy but to the global reputation of the UK university system. An independent, robust body that safeguards standards and protects the interests of hard-working academics should be welcomed.