Market force will better us, says don

March 2, 2001

Higher education would be more efficient if universities were freed from state control to adapt course supply to the demands of fee-paying students, a leading economist has claimed.

Nick Barr, of the London School of Economics, told an Institute for Public Policy Research seminar that higher education should move towards market forces. Professor Barr said that the key issue was whether students could be regarded as informed consumers. He said: "Students are certainly better informed than the central planners. Universities would have to be much freer than they are now to make decisions about course content, student numbers and tuition fees."

However, he said that some students were better informed than others. Resources would have to go into providing information and consciousness-raising, particularly among those from poorer backgrounds.

Students would have to be able to pay those fees, which means they would need better constructed student loans. The government would still have a role in quality assurance and promoting access, he added. Professor Barr advocated a pluralist system in which students, education providers, employers and the government worked together.

• Students this week planned to throw pancakes and release balloons in a bid to bring their poverty to the attention of politicians, writes Cherry Canovan.

The week of action was organised by the National Union of Students whose president, Owain James, called for a Cubie-style review for the whole of the UK.

Goldsmiths' students used "bus tickets" that described higher education as "probably the most expensive journey you'll ever make". Students at Leeds Metropolitan University pelted a 12ft effigy of education secretary David Blunkett's head with pancakes. Those who hit Mr Blunkett's mouth won a can of baked beans.

More than 1,200 balloons were released at the University of Central England, representing students who had either been excluded or risked being excluded for non-payment of fees.

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