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Leader: Price is up but game's unchanged

More consumer pressure is to be expected with higher fees, but it must not negatively affect university standards

The revolution is almost upon us. The coming intake of undergraduates have now voted with their wallets, and David Willetts expects them to turn up in the autumn with a new attitude. "When people are paying...£9,000 a year, they're bloody well going to be consumerist about it," the universities and science minister explained to a student newspaper last year.

There are already signs that the new tuition fee regime has changed students' focus: the number of applications to arts, humanities and social sciences courses has fallen, as young people turn to subjects perceived to have more immediate, obvious and narrow employment outcomes.

Such a shift in priorities hints at more fundamental problems ahead: to what extent will the rise of the student customer reduce the learning process in all its challenging glory to just a shallow, one-way transaction? Will students start to believe that they are buying a degree rather than paying for the opportunity to earn one?

In our cover feature this week, Felipe Fernández-Armesto - a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, whose students pay a sticker price of £27,400 a year - offers some reassurance.

He insists that his students are far from the superficial, grasping, cheating, serial complainers (egged on by increasingly intrusive "helicopter parents") of the sort alarmists fear will turn up for freshers' week next month. On the contrary, they "seem to have a strong sense of how deeply invested they are in their own schooling", he writes.

In fact, Fernández-Armesto argues, the high fees they pay make them better students than those who gained an education for free in the universities of the UK where he used to teach: those students, he recalls, "lounged back insouciantly, confident that their idleness cost them nothing".

But even Fernández-Armesto, with his bullish defence of the highest of high tuition fees, sounds one clear note of caution.

"In one context, fees can have a poisonous effect: when things go wrong," he warns.

Indeed. For it is when things go wrong that the new tuition fees regime in England will be truly tested. And at the sharp end of this searching trial with huge consequences will be grass-roots lecturers across the country, rather than the vice-chancellors who endorsed the fee increases and helped to usher them in.

In England, even in the era of what will come to be seen as modest fees, the big so-called dumbing-down scandals involved examinations: students who were failing but whose marks were bumped up arbitrarily in order to ensure their progress (and their continued funding) to the next year, or to ward off the risk of costly legal action.

Higher fees mean higher stakes, with more to lose for both the student and the university. And with some institutions likely to have been forced to reduce their entry requirements in a desperate bid to reach recruitment targets in a market that allows the elite to cream off all the top-scoring students, the long-term effects on university standards could be toxic.

So while the government champions the student as consumer, the sector must collectively hold firm to the mantra that the customer is not always right.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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