It seems to be an assumption underlying the cross-party consensus on higher education funding that students with differential purchasing power will allocate themselves by time-honoured invisible hand mechanisms between elite and mass institutional providers. I am not convinced that this will happen with quite the ease predicted whatever the ethical defences of such a system may be.
Given modularisation, portable and top-up fees, programme variations in the quality kite-marking of the Higher Education Funding Council for England etc, it is perfectly possible to find oneself in a classroom among student-consumer-kings-and-queens who have purchased their knowledge-commodity at different prices. In a perfect world, variable economic power would make no difference to the classroom community and all would have equality of provisions and treatment.
There always have been variations in the material backgrounds of students. But something qualitatively different happens to a classroom community when its membership is divided by policies and strategies actively designed to recruit, fete and minister to "high earners" who will surely expect a better service than those of their "cheaper" counterparts in the same programmes and courses.
Staff may run like mad to provide excellence for all, but there is bound to be the demand here and there for "the special gold service" - the signs, symbols and material accoutrements of economic clout - and that, I feel, will really put the kibosh on the idea of a university at the level where it really matters, the classroom, study, and laboratory.
WILLIAM KEENAN Department of applied social sciences Nottingham Trent University