Sir Terry Leahy, the former Tesco boss, yesterday claimed that higher tuition fees would boost academic standards because students treated university like a "three-year gap year" when degrees were cheap.
The tough-talking former supermarket chief executive said education levels were dropping before fees were introduced. Sir Terry believes students who pay for their tuition will drive up the quality of courses as they demand value for money.
The retired retail chief was speaking at the Hay Festival, where he invited to speak about a new book on business strategy. He agreed that students leaving university with massive debts was something that needed to be looked at.
But he questioned whether people from poor backgrounds, such as himself, were really worse off today than in the past. "Somebody from my background is probably not worse off than I was," he said. "But it does appear that way. Is it, in fact, putting people off?"
Sir Terry also said he believed that people who paid for their own education valued it. "People were getting a little bit into the frame of mind that three years at university was like a three-year gap year," he said. As universities expanded to take 30 or 40 per cent of students "the quality of education began slipping", he said.