Differential fees have a crucial role to play in a mass system, argues Gordon Graham.
Over the past ten years, British universities, like their US counterparts before them, have been democratised.
While some regard the demise of the old "elitist" system with pleasure, others nostalgically lament its "dumbing down". In this climate, it is often impossible to discuss certain issues without being cast into one of two camps, and hence almost impossible to bring to their discussion the spirit of critical inquiry that universities are supposed to inculcate. One such issue is differential fees.
The mass system of higher education seems here to stay and there is little point in lamenting the state of affairs that preceded it. Nevertheless, there are two aspects of the university that need to be protected if the system, instead of being extended to all, is not to be destroyed. These two casualties are the quality of education and autonomy.
In the US there is great variation among colleges and universities, a variation that is recognised and acknowledged. In Britain there is now also great variation, but it is not acknowledged. The official position is that a university is a university. The truth is otherwise, and to pretend to the contrary is like supposing that Lidl and Sainsbury are much the same because they are both supermarkets. Of course they are not the same but both can give their respective groups of customers equally good value, and this is because there is a common medium in which what they offer can be compared - price.
In the case of universities, any such medium has hitherto taken the form of the hated bureaucratic monster known as the Quality Assurance Agency. Yet, to introduce differential fees would be to "empower" students in the choice of what they judge to be best value for them, while at the same time keeping the institutions more on their toes and providing an independent financial resource.
This brings us to the second casualty of the changes we have seen - the loss of autonomy. There has been a marked and increasing tendency for governments to treat universities, not as the autonomous institutions they constitutionally are but as a system of tertiary education that will deliver government policies on social inclusion and knowledge transfer: in short, to make them instruments of social and economic engineering rather than places of learning and inquiry. The effect of this is to set an intellectual agenda, no less than a political one, in which what is unfashionable or unprofitable from a political point of view will not get studied. This is inevitable since, generally speaking, whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Yet, if it continues, it really will signal the demise of the core value of the university - to be a place of free intellectual inquiry. Such freedom needs protection and such protection requires a measure of financial autonomy, something that the fees could secure.
I am not suggesting that the total cost of universities could or should be met by the present generation of students, or that there should be no financial support from the state. But I do think that the prime values of universities as we have known them are good education and free inquiry and that differential fees are one way to protect these values.
Gordon Graham is regius professor of moral philosophy at the University of Aberdeen and author of Universities : the Recovery of an Idea , published by Imprint Academic in July.