Leader: Steer the vote by keeping it simple

April 8, 2005

Little more than a year ago, higher education was at the top of the political agenda. The parties felt so strongly about tuition fees that even many Labour loyalists were prepared to bring down the Government. As the election campaign begins, however, only the Liberal Democrats appear to see the area as a vote-winner. When Labour and the Tories talk of putting education at the forefront of their programmes, in the main they mean schools - or even pre-schools - not universities and colleges. So what can those who work or study in higher education do to secure the best prospect of progress in the next Parliament?

The best advice surely is to keep the demands simple. Gordon Brown has promised that top-up fee income will be additional to current spending levels. As a bare minimum, all the main parties in England should be held to the value of this pledge, whatever their chosen funding model. But, in the lifetime of the next government, universities and colleges will need much more if staff are to be rewarded fairly and students served adequately. There may be undertakings on research in the next three weeks, but there is a real danger that (capped) top-up fees will be assumed to be the long-term solution to higher education's financial problems.

Naturally, the various pressure groups within higher education will have specific demands. But Universities UK's election manifesto is a pragmatic model for the sector as a whole. Funding dominates a limited set of proposals, but equity in student support, autonomy over admissions and opposition to more concentration of research all feature. As in all the main policy areas, there is no likelihood of radical new proposals in the parties' manifestos; their basic approaches are well known. It will be for the higher education world to make the running if the subject is to climb back onto the politicians' radar before May 5.

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