A voucher for more freedom

September 22, 2006

We need a system more responsive to student demand, says Tim Leunig in the first of our profiles of academics who belong to each major political party

Tim Leunig is a member of an increasingly influential group of economists within the Liberal Democrats that is providing the party with some of its most challenging thinking.

He is a lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics and also a member of the advisory panel behind Vince Cable, Lib Dem Treasury Spokesman. He chaired the federal policy working group on macroeconomics and is a member of the working groups on climate change and poverty and inequality.

Dr Leunig joined the party at its nadir in 1989, when it had a mere 3 per cent of the vote and Paddy Ashdown had just been elected leader. "It is the only party free from a restraining class base and free from a bunch of illiberal people," he says.

His primary interest was in the performance of British industry. He obtained a first in modern history and economics at Oxford University in 1992, went on to do an MPhil and a PhD in economics at Oxford, and then taught at Nuffield College and Royal Holloway, University of London, before joining the LSE in 1998.

He believes that thinking about higher education policy in the Lib Dems reflects deeper changes inside and outside the party. "It is all about positioning ourselves for a world after Tony Blair. Higher education policy acts as a talisman that reflects these deeper changes," he says.

While he does not expect any formal debates on top-up fees at the conference this week, he anticipates a long-term shift in policy, although possibly not before the next election.

"Our current policy of opposing top-up fees brings a key electoral advantage in university seats," he says. "However, if access is not damaged by fees, the party will need to change its policy in the long term."

He supports vouchers for students, arguing that they will give universities greater autonomy. "Currently the quota system stops popular universities from expanding, and unpopular ones are not forced to adjust. We need a system far more responsive to student demand, and vouchers may be one way of doing that."

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