Anyone for quality?

May 5, 2011

The US study you reported ("Mission creep as US spends, spends, spends on the extras", 28 April), showing that between half and three-quarters of American students pay more in tuition than their universities spend on educating them, comes as little surprise.

It is well established that increased market competition in the US has led to more spending on activities that do not contribute to education, but are believed to attract students and donors: the climbing walls constructed by a number of Southern universities are but one of many examples. The role that research plays in conferring status on individuals, departments and institutions is an important contributing factor.

What the US experience suggests is that alongside the Office for Fair Access' role in monitoring widening participation, we need another body - the Quality Assurance Agency, perhaps - to report on how institutions will use increased tuition fees to improve student learning. Since teaching income is often used to subsidise research, this should encompass institutions' use of research funds, because otherwise there is no logical case for funding universities to conduct research (as opposed to specialist institutes).

Given the limited extent to which individual universities can improve access, which depends largely on students' prior educational achievements, this would be a much better use of regulatory resources. Anyone for quality?

Roger Brown, Professor of higher education policy, Liverpool Hope University

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