One of many claims our vice-chancellors regularly rehearse is that American universities are the best in the world, and because American universities rely on high tuition fees, US-level fees in the UK would make our universities as good as theirs.
All self-serving claims should be subject to scrutiny, and this one is no exception. As American investor, industrialist and philanthropist Warren Buffett likes to say, "You don't ask a barber if you need a haircut" - and you shouldn't ask a vice-chancellor if more money would make their university better.
In a recent essay in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues that "best" means very little. Where it means "best ranked", he shows that key indicators are both skewed (because "quality" is a subjective category relying on "relatively arbitrary judgements") and flawed (because key indicators such as cost are excluded).
Some US rankings dwell on academic pay (the assumption being that the higher the salary, the better the teacher). This we know is nonsense. Most teachers are at their best when youngest (and cheapest). Another criterion is "reputation". But ranking by reputation is often about ranking how much cash institutions spend on themselves, and often the "reputation" is, itself, the outcome of "ranking".
As University of Oxford scholar Howard Hotson recently demonstrated ("Government policy is blind to big picture in global rankings", News, 26 May), for this reason alone the focus on private US universities is misleading. It's also the case that the US spends almost three times the amount of its (much higher) gross domestic product on higher education than the UK (3.1 per cent compared with 1.3 per cent): this is a statistic that British admirers of the American system frequently ignore.
The truth is that we should not be chasing the US at all but going with continental Europe - and on the grounds of value for money rather than high price (a criterion rarely used in US rankings).
Affordability, the cost to students of access to research-led teaching, is the most important single factor in working out value for money in universities. Once this is understood, it's obvious that US higher education can be seen as very bad value compared with higher education in every single European Union member state.
Almost every EU country spends between 1.1 and 1.7 per cent of its GDP on higher education. Germany spends 1.1 per cent, France 1.4, the Netherlands 1.5, Slovenia 1.1 and the UK 1.3. Italy spends the least as a proportion of GDP (0.8 per cent in 2007) and Denmark the most (1.7 per cent).
If we set these figures alongside the amount that students have to pay per year, we note that, according to data collected by SIRS Consultancy, the cost in Germany is €1,000 (£870), in France it's €169, in Spain €9-€16 per credit, in Holland €1,672, in Italy €850, in Slovenia €30, in Poland €2,000 - and in Denmark it's free (for now, at least).
Over here, however, from 2012-13 most UK universities will charge £9,000 (about €10,360) a year - £9,000 at Oxbridge, but also at the University of East London. Vice-chancellors say that if they don't charge the top fee, they'll be seen as second-rate. Even the University of Bolton is charging up to £8,400 a year. Would Bolton argue that its teaching is 60 times better than that provided by, say, the University of Bordeaux? On what conceivable grounds? Frankly, it's absurd. Since all EU states give their universities more or less the same proportion of their GDP, it's clear that the UK's university students will soon pay ridiculous sums for an education that could be provided far more cheaply.
Vice-chancellors will no doubt riposte that students are taught better here than on the Continent. It may be the case that lecture halls there are fuller and classes fewer. But that's not the point (nor is it necessarily true, as student complaints about the lack of teaching here illustrate only too starkly). But even if it were true, it would still be wrong to force virtually every English student to pay for the most expensive model of higher education when a cheaper one would do. Doctors with French or German degrees are no worse than those with British ones.
Vice-chancellors like to boast that our universities are plainly better than their European counterparts because so many foreign students choose to come here and not there. In fact, foreign students come to the UK not simply because of our research-led teaching, but also to study in English, work here and even enjoy our benefits system. Indeed, once our own students realise they will do as well in life studying on the Continent (and many continental universities now teach in English), our vice-chancellors may rue the day they became part of rip-off Britain.