Leading article: The value of higher education

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The Independent Online

Much of what the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, had to say on higher education policy yesterday is the logical and direct consequence of allowing universities to levy fees and then not excluding the possibility that they would rise. This was bound to change the relationship between university and student, and it has. But the students (and the Government) have been rather swifter to recognise the change than most of the universities.

Quite reasonably, the students are demanding better value for their money. So far, however, they have mostly defined value in terms of contact time with teachers and the expectation that lecturers will turn up and grade their work. They have also complained about being fobbed off with inexperienced tutors when the department has promised a "star" professor.

Lord Mandelson went further, in his "framework document", saying that students – as "customers" – were entitled to more information before applying, not just about the quality of teaching, but also about their likely future earnings. He also calls for stronger links between universities and industry, while insisting that there is "public value in every subject and academic discipline".

This caveat was a wise inclusion, but perhaps deserved to be spelt out more forcefully. Studying and research have a value in themselves, and by no means everything can, or should, be reduced to its monetary value. There are also areas of study which might have few obvious applications at the time, but subsequently come into their own – or vice versa.

In truth, though, many universities have been too content in recent years to sit back as the applications flood in. They should undoubtedly provide better information about their courses, including a guarantee of teaching time and quality, and data about the jobs and pay graduates can expect. There will be those who find it deeply distasteful to accept that universities, too, must now compete in a modern market. But whether it is the ivory tower or an immediately saleable skill they are offering, the onus has to be on them, as the providers, to convince potential students of their value.