Purpose Higher education (HE) in the UK has recently suffered financial pressure due to reduced central funding, and the requirement to widen student access. The estate is typically the second highest revenue expense and is an obvious target for efficiency gains. Sector-wide statistics show there are opportunities for improving efficiency and many influential bodies have advocated space charging as a way of achieving them. This paper aims to investigate space performance indicators for evidence that space charging improves space use efficiency. Design/methodology/approach The approach used is a statistical analysis of space performance indicators for space charging and other higher education institution (HEIs). Findings Approximately one-quarter of HEIs in the UK operated space charging in 2000-2001 but only ten out of 31 space-related performance indicators for the period 1998-2001 suggest that increased efficiency results. Scrutiny of the background data shows they predominantly reflect differences in institutional wealth and activities, rather than space use management. Efficiency measures relating space to use provide no evidence of efficiency gains, suggesting that the application of charging as a space management tool is ineffective. Research limitations/implications The methodology does not reveal the reasons for the disparity between theory and results of space charging. Qualitative research into the application of charging systems is required to provide an explanation. Practical implications The conclusions are important for HE managers who are considering implementing expensive systems to improve space efficiency. The results also shed light on the usefulness of space performance indicators for HE estates. Originality/value Although there have been many assertions that space charging will improve space use efficiency in the HE sector, this research provides evidence to the contrary.