We have reached the stage of the Parliament when opposition parties need to display some fresh thinking - preferably in fields where the electorate shows signs of discontent with current policies. Save the tax bombshells for the election; this is about causing a stir and convincing pundits you are a serious alternative government. Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats seem to have alighted on higher education as just such an area.
Largely because they got in first, the Tories captured the bigger headlines. It was even claimed (however implausibly) that their promise to save the middle classes £9,000 by abolishing tuition fees could be an election-winner. But both parties think they can tap into public concern, not only over the cost of higher education but also with the direction it is taking. The image of so-called Mickey Mouse degrees, propagated not least by higher education minister Margaret Hodge, is being used against the government. If that is what the government thinks of the courses it funds, why is it proposing to expand the system towards the apparently arbitrary target of 50 per cent participation? Although they present it differently, the Tories and the Lib Dems have much the same remedy: turn the weak vocational degrees into two-year courses. Like Ms Hodge, they do not name names publicly but we all think we know the subjects they mean. We might even agree that some honours courses sound as if they could be taught as foundation degrees, but until we get down to specifics it is impossible to be sure. So where would they draw the line? And who would do the drawing?
So far, the Tories have no answer, while the Lib Dems talk confusingly of a "light-touch inspectorate" somehow pointing the way. In reality, it would mean the reinvention of the National Advisory Body that micromanaged the polytechnics in the 1980s, with ministers directly involved in allocating often small numbers of places to individual institutions. However unpopular tuition fees might be, at least they put control into the hands of customers rather than bureaucrats. Universities will soon drop Mickey Mouse courses if they do not attract students. What higher education really needs is a way of mitigating the effects of top-up fees on those from poor backgrounds. Labour is indeed vulnerable to the charge of allowing such students to be priced out of the most prestigious universities. But destroying university autonomy and taking choice out of the hands of students is not the answer.