Next month's general election has many guises: a surrogate referendum on the Euro; the start of the Tory leadership contest; or the doorway to a second Labour term, when its radical intentions will become apparent. The one sight nobody expects is the furniture van at Downing Street on June 8.
However, this election will produce as much sound and fury as any, and higher education will be part of the tumult. In contrast to 1997, the three main parties have distinctive policies: Labour's is expansion, the Liberal Democrats' focus is on student poverty, and the Tories have the university endowment scheme. There are signs of trouble for Labour. Our poll suggests that problems of finance and quality are already making university less attractive. Applications data show that potential students are looking at the prospect of university with a sceptical eye, endangering expansion. But the Tory scheme for endowing universities attracts scant support from academics, who are more inclined to share Lib Dem concerns for student poverty.
At the same time, too little is said about other issues affecting the future of universities, the most important of which is their public service mission. Politicians of all parties want universities to raise cash from research customers and others, to save public money and in the hope that economic success will spin off from such collaborations. So far so good, but there is too little sense that these relationships can compromise universities' abilities to act as sources of independent advice and knowledge. Universities are a vital part of an advanced economy, but no party seems to have a sophisticated idea of how to develop their unique contribution to society.
In the coming weeks, The THES will report and encourage this debate. Academic candidates, constituencies and issues will all be here and we will give you our view on the parties and their higher education platforms. Election 2001 index page