Thousands of honours degree places could be culled under Conservative plans that may cut the number of universities by reallocating funding for less academic courses, shadow education secretary Damian Green revealed this week, writes Alan Thomson.
The plans, which Mr Green admitted could mean the re-emergence of polytechnic-type institutions, are integral to the Conservative Party's higher education policy. They were announced by Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith on Tuesday as the first part of the party's "A Fair Deal for Everyone".
The policy commits a future Conservative government to scrapping all student tuition fees and replacing the income lost to universities with the money saved by ditching the government's 50 per cent higher education participation target. The Office for Fair Access, the government's proposed university access regulator, would also go.
But Mr Green later told The THES that the policy of halting expansion included a plan to significantly cut the number of traditional, three-year honours degrees. The government's expansion target, set for 2010, includes degrees and other higher education courses such as foundation degrees and diplomas.
Mr Green said: "It will involve weeding out the useless courses.
I cannot tell now how many there are, but there will be significantly fewer people doing traditional university courses under us than under Labour."
Universities would be consulted, he said, to agree criteria, perhaps including dropout rates and entry qualifications, by which weak degree courses might be selected. He suggested that some of these degrees might be better recast as vocational, sub-degree qualifications.
Mr Green said: "I want to raise the status of high-level vocational qualifications. The mix of three-year academic honours degrees being offered and vocational qualifications may well need to be changed."
Any cull of degree courses could impact more on some universities than others and any institution suffering disproportionately would have to consider its future as a university, he said. It was under a Conservative government that polytechnics gained university status in 1992.
Mr Green said: "What I want to do is to develop institutions that are comfortable in offering some higher education and some high-level further education courses.
"I am trying to abolish the chasm that exists between further and higher education. If some institutions want to go down the polytechnic route then I think some will be more comfortable.
"The numbers depend on how fast we want to introduce the changes. We would not want to cause chaos and upheaval. Some institutions might want to lead the way and others might want to jump in afterwards."
By halting expansion, a Conservative government coming to power in 2005 would save about £700 million a year up until 2010 on what would have been spent to achieve the 50 per cent target. The Conservatives said this money would be released and would be ploughed into universities to cover the cost of abolishing tuition fees, which under Labour would rise to £3,000 a year from 2006.
The government attacked the Tory plans, claiming that the £700 million would be money yet to be spent on expansion and would therefore not be available to offset the income lost in fees from 2005. The Conservatives would have to cut existing higher education spending to cover the income loss, the government argued. They estimated that saving £700 million would mean losing up to 250,000 students and 20,000 lecturers.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge said: "Only the better off will benefit from the ending of means-tested tuition fees while the reintroduction of the cap on student numbers will mean thousands of young people will be prevented from going on to higher education."
The National Union of Students welcomed Tory plans to abolish tuition fees, and pointed out that the Labour government was alone in supporting them.
Penny Hollings, NUS national secretary, said: "The Conservative Party has correctly identified just how unpopular tuition fees have been and the catastrophic effect that top-up fees would have. However, this should not be offset by cutting costs in other areas just to court votes and score political points."
Universities UK president Roderick Floud said: "At first sight, the Conservatives propose to deprive universities of a much-needed source of funding to relieve middle-class students from paying fees; the poorest students are already exempt so they would not benefit."
Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "We would warmly welcome any serious proposals to make higher education free at the point of entry and, like most of the public, we are fundamentally opposed to differential top-up fees. However, we would not support any policy that led to a reduction in university funding."
Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Of course we would welcome an abandonment of tuition fees by any government - but this Tory plan is full of holes and reeks of opportunism."