Claire Sanders previews the Lib Dem conference and a show with a difference.
Key political figures in the Liberal Democrats are pushing the idea of student vouchers as a way of freeing universities from state control and allowing popular universities to thrive.
The move, which is part of a debate within the party on whether its opposition to top-up fees is tenable in the long run, reflects major political fault lines within the Lib Dems.
The debate could spill into fringe meetings at the party's annual conference in Brighton next week.
Vince Cable, the party's Treasury spokesman, first raised the issue of vouchers in a Centre for Reform pamphlet on public services last year. He said: "The party currently opposes top-up fees; but we need to start thinking ahead, and I wanted to inject the idea of vouchers into the debate."
He said that vouchers, which would represent a financial entitlement from the state, would be available to further and higher education students. The vouchers could be cashed in for approved courses. Students would in effect hold the purse strings, distancing universities from the state.
Mr Cable's pamphlet says that vouchers would shift the "terms of trade" so that institutions "would provide tuition in response to demand rather than what they or the Government say that students should be given".
The idea was picked up in Julian Astle's pamphlet for the liberal think-tank CentreForum. The pamphlet called for the cap on tuition fees to be lifted and for part of the central government teaching grant to universities to be converted into a learning voucher for students.
But some Liberal Democrats are deeply hostile to such ideas.
Phil Willis, chair of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, said: "I am firmly opposed to the march to the Right being led by right-wing economists in the party. I welcome Vince Cable's tax proposals but am against top-up fees and the marketisation of higher education, which has damaged science provision in this country."
Tim Leunig, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, and an adviser to Mr Cable and a member of numerous Lib Dem policy bodies, said: "There is a general tension within the Liberal Democrats between those who want to see a reduced role for the state and a more market-orientated approach, and those inclined to higher taxes."
David Willetts, Conservative Education Spokesman, said: "For 20 years, I have had young Tories talking excitedly to me about vouchers. I am yet to see a workable proposal."
THE LABOUR AND TORY LINES
Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister, and his Conservative shadow, Boris Johnson, spell out the differences in their higher education policies.
Mr Rammell said: "Two significant differences remain between the parties. We have committed significant resources to higher education, particularly the science base. And we have been serious about widening participation."
Mr Johnson said: "There are clear differences on regulation. We want to find ways to lessen the bureaucratic burden on universities. The Conservatives are committed to improving access, but I am not sure government initiatives are working."