`Be radical' is Lib-Dem cry

January 9, 1998

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat spokesman on further and higher education argues that the problem with British higher education is that development was incremental.

"Dearing assumed that he was building on Robbins, who was building on the redbrick expansion of the early 20th century, which in turn built on the Oxbridge pattern," he says. "It is time to call a halt and ask whether a system constructed that way makes sense."

Mr Willis and the Liberal Democrat chief education spokesman Don Foster hope their consultation and deliberations will produce a policy paper during the summer for discussion at the party's federal conference at Brighton in September.

"We have to look at institutional autonomy and to ask British society, and industry in particular, what it wants from higher education and to look hard at the means by which courses are delivered," he says. Greater access is necessary, but the question remains "access for what?" he asks. Institutional autonomy must be balanced with society's view of what it wants from universities and other institutions.

On course delivery, he says, "We are extremely interested in the University for Industry proposals, the development of part-time credit accumulation degrees and the possibilities of the Internet and of video-conferencing."

In asking what society wants, a priority is "making British industry real partners in the world of higher education. A small number of companies make a serious contribution to research budgets and teaching in higher education, but as the CBI recognises the majority are not involved."

Mr Willis certainly is not going to spell out answers at the start of a long-term policy review, but the likely implication of his view is that resources would shift away from traditional undergraduate education.

The Liberal Democrats are known to be cool on Dearing but enthusiastic about the Kennedy report on further education.

Mr Willis is already prepared to entertain the possibility of shifts. "We might want to fund postgraduate education more fully and look for different ways of delivering undergraduate courses," he says.

"Hard choices" are as likely to become a Liberal Democrat as a Labour watchword. But there is no threat, as yet, to the key policies of an extra penny on income tax and opposition to tuition fees.

The penny, Mr Willis says, would come up for serious review if public finances improve to the extent predicted by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

There might eventually be a tough choice between opposing tuition fees for full-time students and providing part-timers with the greater support the party advocates. But at the moment, says Mr Willis, "There is no backtracking on tuition fees."

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