Market credentials (1 of 2)

March 24, 2011

In "Cutting the Gordian knot" (17 March), Alasdair Smith argues that removing price and number restrictions from our universities would reduce costs, as would limiting the intake of "unqualified" students.

The latter proposal has obvious negative implications for equity, widening participation and social mobility, but the former should not go unchallenged, either.

Smith claims that real competition would keep fees under control because if competitors were able to increase their student numbers, institutions would risk having unfilled places if they set their fees too high. This was also the position of the Browne panel. However, the experience of high-end universities in the US and selective schools here shows that price competition in education has precisely the opposite effect.

The Ivy League institutions charge what the market will bear, exploiting the ever-increasing demand for prestigious credentials while at the same time limiting their numbers to maintain their cachet. This is why the US has far and away the most expensive higher education system in the world, with expenditure per student some three times that of the UK.

Similarly, the leading public schools here charge far more than is necessary to provide an adequate level of education to pupils who mostly come from wealthy and supportive backgrounds, again keeping their numbers under control to preserve their selectivity, and again costing far more than the best state schools.

At what point will policymakers appreciate that higher education is not an economic but a positional market where, in an increasingly credentialist world, institutions, vice-chancellors, staff and students compete not for resources but for status, a competition reinforced by blue-chip employers that recruit overwhelmingly from those same prestigious institutions? Why else would "top" universities here feel that they "have" to charge £9,000 a year in tuition fees when a perfectly satisfactory higher education can be provided for much less?

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

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy