On this day in 1740, Adam Smith set off for Bailliol College Oxford, where he had won an ‘exhibition’. It took him a month on horseback from his home in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, and he commented how, the further south he went along his journey, the better the cattle seemed to be fed, and how much more opulent the living was. Perhaps this was the start of his interest in economics.
At Oxford he was taught another lesson in economics – that if you pay people whether they work or not, they will invariably choose not to. This was true of the professors at Oxford, who were on annual salaries rather than being paid directly by their students, which was the system Smith himself would teach under at Glasgow some years later. "In the University of Oxford," he observed, "the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching."
“The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived," he went on, "not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters."
This may be something that, at last, will change now that British students are facing £9,000 a year fees. It will turn them into discerning and demanding customers. The "masters" won’t know what hit them.