Leader: Cameron faces difficult choices

December 9, 2005

With Labour's "education, education, education" increasingly reverting to an exclusive concentration on the primary and secondary phases, the presence of "well-funded universities" among the priorities laid out in David Cameron's acceptance speech as Tory leader was doubly welcome. The Conservatives have a lot of ground to make up before they win over many academics, but Mr Cameron has at least suggested that he takes higher education seriously. His readiness, as Shadow Education Secretary, to dump the manifesto sleight of hand of noisily championing the abolition of tuition fees while quietly proposing to raise interest rates on student loans was evidence of that.

Mr Cameron has been understandably reluctant thus far to fill in the details of Conservative policy on higher education (and most other areas).

Now, however, he will have to come up with a plausible alternative to Labour's approach that sits more comfortably with his theme of sharing responsibility. The obvious route would be to promise an end to the £3,000 cap on top-up fees in England - something an administration led by Gordon Brown would be loath to do, even in the unlikely event that it could muster the necessary support on its back benches. The question then would be what conditions (if any) would be attached to ensure that higher education remained affordable for students of all backgrounds.

In his article on these pages on November 11, Mr Cameron denounced the use of higher education for social engineering and championed university autonomy. His focus appeared to be on international competitiveness, but he acknowledged the need for further expansion and even stated a belief in education for its own sake. His own brief stewardship of the education portfolio left few clues as to where the balance will be struck, but it will be an intriguing test of the Tories' determination to reoccupy the middle ground of politics.

With this week's pre-Budget report confirming the likelihood of straitened times to come in the public services, the Tories could end up promising more to higher education than Labour. If so, however, it might be at the cost of a still more stratified system in which the state washes its hands of its responsibility to preserve equality of access. It would be an approach that would divide the academic world even more than at the last election, but at least the electorate could choose between two distinct and workable visions for the future.

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