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.