Margareta Pagano: University buys a £1.4m Picasso. What's wrong with this picture?

So are UK students getting bang for their buck? Doesn't seem that way

The first I heard of Durham University's sensational decision to splash out millions on a Picasso painting among other new art was when I received this text from my son, who is a student there: "Durham Uni spent £1.4m on art for one of the centres. ... Now we know where my £9,000 is going."

A few seconds later came another text: "Why do we need it?" It's the right question to ask and so far Durham's elders have failed to put up a convincing answer, leaving many students wondering if the university is getting too big for its boots in its drive to compete with Oxbridge, even over its art collections.

What's interesting about the cynicism of my son – and he says his friends feel the same – is how the punitive cost of soaring tuition fees is turning today's students into bolshie consumers rather than bolshie CND marchers. How times have changed – twenty years ago no student would have given a toss about what their university was spending on art – or their wine cellars for that matter.

So in that sense it's rather heartening to hear that students are still capable of being goaded into action as the cost of the art only came out into the open after Durham's student union put in for a Freedom of Information request; one that was originally refused.

But their reaction goes deeper than just student frolics. There's no question that one of the unintended consequences of the Government's decision to allow university to set their own fees – and create a market in education – is that students are now demanding to know how and on what their money is being spent.

Education has gone from being a privilege to a purchase; whether they get Waitrose or Aldi quality is what they care about now. Most importantly, they are already starting to ask what sort of careers they will get from their personal investment which is easily – if you put in living costs and accommodation – now £18,000 a year at universities like Durham. No wonder I keep hearing of first-year students who are dropping out.

Durham couldn't have had a worse day for the news to slip out. Also published on Wednesday was a report from the excellent Which? magazine into higher education which found that while the cost of university has gone up nine times in the last six years, the numbers of hours of tuition has stayed broadly the same. The survey found the average total student workload is around 30 hours per week – half tuition and half self-study – but over a quarter of the sample had total workloads of less than 26 hours per week. That's a figure which the Higher Education Policy Institute suggests is more like part-time education than full-time. This is about a quarter less than the amount recommended by the government's quality guidelines, which is for 1200 hours a year – but on average the students surveyed spent 900 hours. Compare this to the European equivalent – where higher education is still largely free – and where students have up to 1800 hours of teaching and work.

So are UK students getting bang for their buck? Doesn't seem that way. A third of the 26,000 students asked said they didn't think they were getting value for money and nearly the same said their courses were poor. The Which? survey also showed how the teaching time varies hugely between universities – some budding mathematicians get 11 hours a week, others get 22, yet the fees paid are the same. I haven't done the sums but it would be interesting to work out how much students are paying for each lecture or tutorial per hour; that would concentrate the mind.

My view is that we haven't seen even the beginning of the real fall-out from higher tuition fees. What we know is that the numbers of students applying are down – particularly male and white pupils – and, with disposable incomes still shrinking, these are bound to keep falling.

This will have a disturbing impact on the economy, particularly in the science and engineering subjects where we are still desperately short of skills, but also on social mobility. The only solution is for British industry to start sponsoring more students for part-time or full-time degree courses as companies such as British Gas and Morrisons are already doing and going back to more old-style indentureship training programmes. It's also been suggested in many quarters that degree courses could be cut to two years – something backed up by those Which? numbers. More students may be forced to choose universities closer to home as they do in Europe – a single train fare from London to Durham with a student card is £80. Say no more. It was Picasso (pictured) who said: "Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth."

The King's jest

So, farewell then Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England who held a low-key court for his last quarterly inflation report last week. While historians will debate his legacy for decades to come there's no doubt we'll miss his marvellous football and cricket quips and his dry if not sardonic humour even more. He couldn't resist a few more cracks, comparing himself and the Bank of England and the last 20 years of permanent revolution to Che Guevera's stewardship of the Bank of Cuba. But it was his sweet invitation to a Slovenian journalist that her country quit the eurozone and join the sterling area that got the best laughs. Knowing Sir Mervyn a little, I doubt it was said entirely in jest.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 busi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Reach Volunteering: Trustees with Finance, Fundraising and IT skills

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses reimbursable: Reach Volunteering: St...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent