Students could be tough customers
Will there be a consumer revolution amongst students in England if fees rise to £9,000 a year?
Until now, vice-chancellors and student leaders have insisted that universities are not about hard-headed seller-buyer relationships but about high-minded partnerships for learning.
But that looks set to change, with a harder edge entering the rhetoric of student leaders as they face much higher fees.
It could transform the relationship between students and university staff - and it raises wider questions about whether students are equipped to be savvy consumers in a price-sensitive market.
The day after the student protest, as the broken glass was still being swept up outside Conservative party headquarters, the leader of the National Union of Students warned a gathering of university staff that there would have to be a "consumer revolution" in higher education if the fees increase goes ahead.
Aaron Porter said students must have "increased rights and increased powers" if they are to be charged up to £9,000 a year.
He said there would have to be a legal right for students to move universities if they have been misled by prospectuses.
He also said that any additional charges, such as for printing in the library or for science materials, must be "banned outright".
"If a £9,000 fee is not all-inclusive", he warned, "something is badly wrong".
And he argued that the current model for monitoring the quality of teaching in universities would need to be radically overhauled, as it was "too vague, too slow and too distant from the student".
The NUS president, who has always championed partnership working in the past, said there would be a "desperate need" for a new universities' "watchdog", with powers to refer university pricing practices to the Office for Fair Trading or the Monopolies Commission and to monitor the accuracy of prospectuses.
The warning shook his audience, which was made up of university managers who have traditionally worked closely with student unions to deliver campus services.
However, if a "consumer revolution" is to happen in universities, it seems that students themselves may have to change their ways.
Research by the university admissions body, UCAS, suggests that large numbers of students currently make their choice of university without any solid or useful consumer-style information about what they are "buying".
For example, 20% of male university applicants, and 15% of female applicants, do not even visit a single university campus before taking up their places.
The idea of a consumer market in higher education is also undermined by the evidence that almost 45% of university applicants apply only to universities within 25 miles of their home.
The trend towards living at home is growing and, while more common amongst mature students, it is also increasing amongst school-leavers, with 35% of those under-21 applying to universities within 25 miles.
However, under the new system many students - depending on where they live - could find that all their local universities are charging the maximum fee of £9,000, leaving them with the choice of either paying-up or accepting the higher cost of living away from home.
All of this will have to be carefully weighed by universities as they get down to the difficult decision of what level to set their fees at.
Most universities will have to do this by February or March next year, as prospectuses for students applying for the 2012-13 academic year need to be published by April 2011.
Range of prices?
Talking privately, vice-chancellors expect that virtually all of the universities in the Russell Group and the 1994 Group (which between them represent the 40 or so most selective universities) will go for fees at around £9,000.
One vice-chancellor from this group said he might consider charging the maximum for courses such as business or accountancy while charging perhaps only half as much for, say, a philosophy degree.
But charging different fees for different subjects at the same university could throw up some tricky issues. As the vice-chancellor admitted, his philosophy department might not be too impressed.
Also, would students paying £9,000 expect to receive better facilities, such as libraries or common rooms, than those paying only half as much?
Some universities already provide more up-market facilities, such as superior meeting and study areas, for MBA students.
It might sound fanciful, but could we see airport-style "executive lounges" for those paying £9,000 and "economy" facilities for those paying less?
Meanwhile, for those university applicants who are savvy enough to exercise their consumer powers, there are some interesting options.
If fees rise to £9,000 then some courses in the USA, Canada or Australia might start to be cheaper options, particularly where living costs are lower in those countries.
Or, for even better value, students might look to Europe where fees tend to be minimal and where growing numbers of universities are teaching degree courses in English.
Take the University of Maastricht, for example, where undergraduate fees for EU students are only about £1,400 a year and where many courses are delivered in English. Moreover, in an attempt to attract the brightest students, the university offers free tuition to the top 3% of students.
In the new university landscape, as the fees market develops in England, it might not only be "booze cruises" heading across the English Channel - a bachelor's degree from continental Europe could be the next big bargain.
Mike Baker is a freelance education journalist.