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
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Sales Assistant / Buyer

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers a range of ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'