Leader: Labour offers the best chance of a secure future

April 29, 2005

People who work in universities and colleges do not need this newspaper to tell them how to vote. While higher education policy may be particularly important to them, academics (and students) will be swayed by the same broad range of issues that will influence the rest of the electorate. They may well feel more strongly than the average voter about Iraq and hold different views about immigration, but they live in the same economy and use the same hospitals and schools.

Nevertheless, the apparent voting intentions of academics and students differ so markedly from the results of the general opinion polls - and also from our own surveys at previous elections - that they deserve further examination. The rise of the Liberal Democrats has been spectacular and, while the Tories have practically disappeared as a political force on campus, Labour should be concerned at its decline in an area of traditionally solid support.

In so far as there has been a debate on higher education during the current campaign, it has focused almost entirely on top-up fees and student debt.

Labour has avoided the subject and only the Lib Dems have made it a prominent election theme. The Conservatives made a token effort to steal the Lib Dems' thunder, but plainly do not see their own plans as the election-winner they were said to be two years ago. Presumably, their polling suggests that their pledge to scrap fees is not believed or, if it is, voters are not convinced that the Tory alternative will benefit students or higher education.

Certainly, today's ICM poll gives the Conservative plans an unprecedented raspberry. Only 4 per cent thought they represented the best higher education policy. Quite apart from the glaring inconsistency between a professed desire for small government and the central planning of their system of regulation by "scholarships", many in universities and colleges would fear for their jobs under a Tory government. While raising interest rates on student loans is a legitimate alternative to increasing fees, the Tory package is not certain to produce enough money to cater adequately for demographic growth, let alone further expansion.

Neither, in the long run, is the superficially attractive Lib Dem policy.

It is not surprising that students and staff in higher education favour higher taxes for those on six-figure salaries, with the proceeds funding the abolition of tuition fees and the restoration of student grants. No one connected with higher education likes the imposition of any charges that could deter potential students from poor backgrounds, or narrow study choices. But to assume that mass higher education will continue indefinitely to be funded by the taxpayer alone involves a leap of faith bordering on the naive. Nor do the Lib Dems offer any guarantees about the future size or shape of the higher education system.

Labour, by contrast, have themselves to blame for taking the campus vote for granted. Party strategists know that top-up fees are unpopular, but they could have made far more of the extra £1 billion going into higher education and the much larger sums that will be required to bridge the gap while the Treasury waits for top-up fees to produce repayments.

The argument for graduates to pay a greater share of the cost of their education has been rehearsed at length in The Times Higher . The system to be introduced next year is less than perfect for students or institutions, but in the real world it is not a bad start. The pity is that the election has reduced higher education to an either/or debate about fees.

Universities and colleges will need fees and enhanced public funding to thrive over the course of the next Parliament. Only Labour's policy could deliver this. But will it?

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