As our new poll taps the academic mood on campus, The Times Higher joins the main parties' head honchos on education as they tramp the election trail
Academics' thoughts on the health of higher education and life on the campus are revealed in this week's exclusive ICM poll for The Times Higher .
Some 500 academics at all grades from across the UK were surveyed during the election campaign. They said Labour was no longer their party of choice and pulled no punches in response to questions on the research assessment exercise, the need for student remedial work, subjects at risk, the top-up fees cap and union representation.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "If accurate, this bodes ill for Labour. Top-up fees and the unpopular RAE have clearly undermined support. Despite some extra cash for higher education, poor pay levels, stress and casualisation are the order of the day for many lecturers.
"If re-elected, Labour should completely overhaul its funding policies."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "Whichever party takes office has urgent issues to deal with, namely: pay and pay inequalities, the RAE, job cuts and departmental closures.
"The AUT has also challenged the next government to scrap the RAE."
ICM Research conducted telephone interviews with a random sample of 500 university lecturers between April 11 and 21.
Despite concerns over universal issues such as research and teaching, the ICM Research poll shows academics to be broadly content with their institutions.
Asked to what extent they would recommend their institution as a place of work, 48 per cent said they would "highly recommend" it. Only 6 per cent said they would "not recommend it at all".
Professors, readers and social scientists were happiest, with 61 per cent saying they would highly recommend their university.
Junior staff were less enthusiastic, with 55 per cent saying they could "somewhat recommend" their institution to others, while one in ten academics in medical and engineering faculties said they could not recommend their university at all.
Meanwhile, academics who are members of trade unions appeared to be satisfied with how their interests were being represented. Sixty-two per cent said they were "quite well represented", while identical proportions (18 per cent each) said they were either "very well" or "quite badly" represented.
Junior staff seemed most content, with 61 per cent saying they were "quite well represented".
However, 26 per cent of professors or readers said they were "quite badly represented".
Despite an undercurrent of concern in recent months, academics' feelings about the research assessment exercise were not clear cut.
Although 52 per cent said it should be scrapped and 39 per cent said it should be retained, academics' opinions varied depending on their staff grade.
While 48 per cent of junior lecturers were against the RAE, 46 per cent said it should continue. Among senior lecturers, 54 per cent wanted it axed, with 36 per cent saying it should be retained, while half of professors and readers opposed the RAE, with 42 per cent saying it should be retained.
On departmental closures, often linked to the RAE, chemistry and engineering were thought most likely to be at risk. Overall, 29 per cent of academics expected no closures. Professors and readers were more optimistic, with 39 per cent expecting no closures. Junior lecturers were most pessimistic, with just 17 per cent believing all departments were safe.
The verdict was clear on tuition fees: 76 per cent of academics said the cap should not be raised beyond the £3,000 limit that Labour has promised to maintain for the duration of the next Parliament if it is re-elected.
Of those who said the cap should be raised, 25 per cent said students should pay £5,000, with one in eight saying it should be higher than £15,000.
Despite concerns about falling standards, most academics said only a minority of students needed "remedial work" when they started university.
One in four academics said that up to 10 per cent of their students needed help and one in five academics put the proportion of undergraduates needing remedial work at between 11 and 20 per cent.
Eleven per cent said they had no idea how many students needed remedial work, while six respondents said that between 91 and 100 per cent of their students needed remedial work.
Lib Dem: Phil Willis
Phil Willis, MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough since 1997 and his party's education spokesman for the past six years, runs a slick operation, writes Tony Tysome.
His constituency office in Harrogate is filled with boxes of campaign letters. Yellow buckets bear labels inviting voters to "Win With Willis".
It's 10.15am and volunteers, including a number of students, are stuffing the envelopes they spent all night addressing.
It is, therefore, refreshing that Mr Willis's vehicle of choice for the election campaign is not some slick new executive saloon but his own 13-year-old Honda Prelude.
As we drive off, he confesses: "I love this car. I've had it since 1992, and I've never wanted to change it." The Willis-mobile encapsulates its owner's unpretentious, homely electioneering style. It's an image that has worked a treat in the past two general elections.
In 1997, Mr Willis defeated Norman Lamont, the Tory former Chancellor, with a 15.7 per cent swing, ending an 84-year Conservative reign in the constituency. In 2001, he increased his majority to 8,500. His pollsters reckon he will at least match that on May 5.
A key strategy, he explains, is the personal touch. "I have visited every school, hospital, old people's home and business. That contrasts with my Tory predecessor, who was known locally as 'the invisible man'. People like to see their local MP. It's what I really enjoy doing," he said.
Jane Rhodes, principal of Henshaws College, confirms his accessibility. "He takes an interest in everything we are doing," she said.
Higher education is an important issue for Harrogate voters, since nearly 70 per cent of local school-leavers go on to university or college. It is fertile ground for Mr Willis, whose party would scrap all university tuition fees.
Canvassing on Harrogate's streets indicates the policy is a vote-winner.
Ruth Wilson, an Audit Commission employee with three young children, tells Mr Willis: "Top-up fees will eat into our pension if we see our three children through university."
But after an hour of door-knocking, frostbite is setting in and Mr Willis retreats to his Honda. His assistant gives the trusty jalopy a despairing look: the number plate is falling off. But it seems the wheels are still well and truly on Mr Willis's election bandwagon.
Conservative: Tim Collins
Tim Collins, the Conservative education spokesman, will be among the first to face the great yellow guillotine on May 5, at least that is what the Liberal Democrats say, writes Paul Hill.
He is nursing a majority of only 3,147 in Westmorland and Lonsdale, and is one of the Conservative frontbenchers listed in the Liberal Democrats' "decapitation strategy" - their plan to target and defeat the Tory leadership at the polls.
Not that Mr Collins appears to fear the 3 per cent swing that could cost him his seat - and not that his views on education policy will make much difference to the outcome.
Meeting the education spokesman and his team on a drizzly day in Kendal - where he operates out of a constituency office housed in a backstreet garret - his aide makes it clear that a lack of National Health Service dentists, and house prices going through the roof as a result of buying activity from outsiders, are the burning issues.
Tuition fees, higher education and the state of schools are not big election issues in this part of the world.
The first stop of the day's electioneering is the opening of a lymphoedema clinic, where Mr Collins is ushered around, shaking hands and peering into treatment rooms.
Whether this will win Mr Collins many more votes is unclear, especially because the absence of the press - aside from The Times Higher - means that few local voters will know that he turned up.
Afterwards, he heads back to the office, which is tucked away up an alley off Kendal's high street.
Kendal itself is the best part of 300 miles from London. However, there is no escape from Westminster - an urgent call comes in from Tory HQ, where a press officer wants to check a statement on special schools.
After a brief telephone call to the local radio station - during which Mr Collins comments on plans to build wind farms in the Lake District - it's off to the offices of the Westmorland Gazette , Cumbria's broadsheet newspaper, where the MP is on the panel of judges of a competition that aims to highlight environmental projects in local schools.
Walking down the high street, no one stops to say hello or to harangue him about the state of the town or the nation.
"Mmmm," muses Mr Collins, "one of the perils of judging competitions, for an MP, is that for every vote you win, you lose a few dozen more."
Not a comforting thought in a seat where so few votes will determine the outcome, and where the Liberal Democrats are going hell for leather to claim his scalp.
Labour: Ruth Kelly
Try as she might to ignore it, a political elephant is following Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, on the campaign trail, writes Paul Hill.
It sat, waiting to be noticed, at the back of the auditorium at Labour HQ when Ms Kelly published her party's manifesto for schools, colleges and universities.
The elephant - an awkward question, too big to ignore - was simply: will people believe Labour's 2005 education promises when the last manifesto pledged not to introduce top-up fees?
When the question was put, Ms Kelly, seemingly prepared, conjured an image of ministers battling to restore harmony to discordant university finances.
Ministers had legislated for higher fees and bursaries in the last Parliament to ensure there was an "orderly system" of funding for higher education, she said.
But will ministers introduce higher fees in the next Parliament? "The cap will stand at £3,000 - and that's in the manifesto," Ms Kelly replied, without a hint of irony.
It is, of course, more difficult to choreograph events outside Labour HQ, as Ms Kelly and the Prime Minister found during a photocall at a south-east London on Tuesday.
The Education Secretary and Mr Blair appeared to be booed by a group of decidedly off-message pupils.
The school later insisted that the teenagers were not in fact heckling but shouting "boom" - a hip, urban word of approval.
Even so, it seems unlikely that Mr Blair will hope to hear it used at the expected victory party for Labour in the early hours of May 6.