There has been much talk about the mechanics of payback – when and at what rate – but few have contested Browne's premise: that students are essentially consumers who should pay for services they receive – the more upmarket, the higher the price.
Yet this is a radical departure from how we once conceived the public realm. Before Tony Blair introduced tuition fees, higher education was seen as a social good, enriching our whole society rather than merely an individual's future salary. It sounds quaint now, but the purpose of universities was to hand down to the next generation the stock of human knowledge and add to it. They were about learning rather than earning.
Until now we have assumed that once you walk through the door into a universal, publicly funded service, cash should not enter your mind. When you visit a doctor, you aren't asked which pills you'd prefer: expensive ones or the cheaper alternative. The idea would appal us. We expect a public service to be undifferentiated by cost.
Thanks to Browne and variability of student fees from college to college, higher education will no longer be like that. In the process a precedent has been set, one that could well be followed across the public sphere. From now on, it will be acceptable to identify the benefit recipients get from this or that service and ask them to pay more for it. We could well be looking at the dawn of what my colleague Aditya Chakrabortty calls the pay-as-you-go state.