Leader: Don't mention the fees

October 1, 2004

After the battering Tony Blair received from his party over top-up fees, no one could blame him for avoiding the subject at the Labour conference this week. But there is something strange about a political system in which an issue is sufficiently critical to determine the fate of a government in January but practically forgotten a few months later.

Although Charles Clarke made passing reference to fees in his platform speech, the education debate was devoted almost entirely to schools and skills. Labour activists obviously see no point in reviving a debate that many consider a blot on their government's record. The danger is that the deafening silence on higher education will encourage ministers to believe that it is an area that needs no further attention.

With an election on the horizon and a spending settlement still to be finalised, the sector cannot afford to be driven into a Whitehall backwater. However suspect their plans, the Conservatives are likely to take a different view next week: like the Liberal Democrats, they see top-up fees as a vote-winner. How ironic that the party that raised higher education spending and staked its future on radical reform appears the least anxious to discuss the fruits of those decisions.

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