Progress in flexibility 1

October 17, 2003

As author of the Liberal Democrat proposals on higher education, I take issue with your leading article ("Sour notes lost in political noise", October 3). The Liberal Democrats are committed to funding the tuition costs of higher education from progressive taxation. We made our projections through to 2006, as did the government. Given the likely number of students in that period, our funding proposals, which include an immediate injection of up to Pounds 2 billion into the higher education budget, are consistent and viable.

Our proposals nowhere suggest, as you claim, that we are set on "forcing more students to live athome and steering others on to two-year courses". Our aim is to increase the flexibility of the higher education system so that it is easier to study part time and to enter and progress through the system with vocational qualifications.

Under the system we propose, the student carries the funding and makes the choices. We say explicitly: "Initially we would envisage little change. Most 18-year-old students would, as now, opt to study full time at one institution. Mature students' are likely to be the first to seize the opportunities to 'earn and learn' that the system opens up. Over time we would expect to see the system leading to considerable change, with some students opting, for example, to postpone study for a few years; opting out after two years and using their remaining credits to pursue part-time or evening study; or opting initially for part-time study and then going full time. The system offers wide flexibility and the choice would lie with the student."

There is nothing novel in these proposals. Anyone familiar with the American, Canadian or Australian systems of higher education would recognise them immediately. We do aim to make it easier to "earn and learn", as it is in those countries. But there is no question of forcing students down this route.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford
House of Lords

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