The Times – March of the student dinosaurs, by Gabriel Rozenberg<br/> If these protesters were true radicals they would have demanded the right to pay more

HOW WOULD you feel if I told you that reading this column would cost you £25,000? More than a little short-changed, I’d bet. But it does. You see, not so long ago I went to university and you, the taxpayer, footed almost the entire bill. Now I feel rather sheepish. I’m grateful to you for giving me the chance to sleep through lectures, drink subsidised beer and use my education to get a full-time job. But you hardly got much out of the deal. Benevolent though you’ve been, there are plenty of youngsters out there who’d like to stretch you a bit further. Yesterday thousands of members of the National Union of Students dusted off their red flags and loudhailers to descend on London in protest against university top-up fees. Twenty-one years after the miners’ strike ended, these are Scargill’s children.

Their dreary demos have been going on ever since fees were introduced, which was incidentally my first year at university. At a grand a year, it was a sensational bargain — though of course that wasn’t the real cost: that bill was being met by the taxpayer. I found the protests embarrassing in their lack of gratitude then, and I still do.

And embarrassing at how naive they are. They have to pay £3,000. The UC schools (to pick a public school for the sake of argument, but never mind the $40,000 Ivy Leagues) cost $6770 (£3569) for in-state and $25,454 £13,419) out-of-state and get only 38%, and I’d say they’re doing fairly well.

And who could doubt that the new system is generous to a fault? Students can borrow money on terms that would make financial advisers choke on their cappuccinos: entirely interest-free, and you don’t have to pay it back until you start earning. Stay feckless and idle, and you’ll never have to stump up at all.

Here’s what the NUS should be doing: pleading with universities to get out of the government funding game altogether. Students should demand to be charged the full cost of their education, perhaps £10,000 a year.

That may be about as likely as the McCartneys agreeing to give it one more try for the sake of the kids. But students should look at the bigger picture: our universities, once the envy of the world, are slowly, gracefully, declining into mediocrity, run down by a Government that can no longer afford to support them.

Funding per student has halved over the past 20 years, and the ratio of tutors to undergraduates has steadily worsened. Unis can’t compete with the US where it matters most — in holding on to the academics of the next generation. It is no coincidence that all this year’s academic Nobel Prizes were won by Americans.

But oodles more cash would be no use if the State still dished it out. Already, vice-chancellors speak of an inexorable rise in paperwork, as the bear hug of the Department for Education and Skills draws ever tighter.

I feel like just recently I read the greatest extension of this argument, but I don’t remember where (to look it up) and I don’t remember enough about it (to paraphrase it). Something about the Enlightenment, maybe? Or am I mixing up my read-recall…