Universities will be the next target for Conservative education reforms, party spokesmen said this week.
The Tories took on Labour on its home ground as it unveiled an agenda for reform that saw public services emerge as its priority.
Shadow education secretary Damian Green said that the party had in the past failed to make as much of education and other public services as it might have done, but that lessons had been learnt.
Mr Green told The THES : "I completely reject the idea that the public services, education for instance, are a 'Labour issue'. They matter to people, so they are absolutely a Conservative issue."
Education was the first debate of this week's conference in Bournemouth and Mr Green used his speech to announce six new policies. Higher education would be the party's next priority, he said.
The party is waiting forthe government to reveal its strategy for higher education, due in November, before committing itself to policy.
Mr Green said that he had serious concerns about government policy, including the 50 per cent higher education participation target that must be reached by 2010. He said that the target was under consideration as part of the Conservatives' review of higher education policy.
Mr Green said: "If you accept that 50 per cent are doing valuable higher education, then you are in danger of writing off the 50 per cent that do not go on to higher education."
He commended the principle of increasing the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education. But he questioned the government's top-down approach, which places much of the responsibility for widening participation on universities.
He said: "The problem overwhelmingly lies in schools. Too many from disadvantaged backgrounds go to schools where they are not encouraged to go on to higher education.
"If you start admitting people with low grades to university, who may be unsuited to university, just to hit a target, then you get a corrosive sense of unfairness among those with better grades, among staff in universities and in the general public."
Mr Green criticised higher education minister Margaret Hodge, who has proposed a freeing-up of the higher education market that would place more power in the hands of students as consumers and that could mean the merger and even closure of unpopular courses and institutions.
He said: "It was the single most astounding remark I have heard from a higher education minister in a long time.
"Government, through the funding council, controls the pricing of courses, the numbers of students, admissions policies. Added to which the government earmarks ever-more university funding, telling them what to spend it on. This is moving further away from a free market."
Mr Green said that future Conservative higher education policy would be based on the belief that universities are independent bodies that should not be an arm of the state, that degrees should mean something and that every place should be awarded on merit.
* The six Conservative education policies are: scrap AS levels and introduce a new exam system; Bank of England-style independence for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority; more power to headteachers on classroom discipline; a "good behaviour" contract to be signed by parents on behalf of their children; more freedom for headteachers to spend money as they see fit; and state scholarships allowing parents and other groups to set up new independently run schools.
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