As Parliament resumes this week, a growing consensus on further and higher education policies is emerging as the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats unveil their ideas for the future of universities and colleges.
Though the Government seems determined to hold back on expansion, Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat education think tanks agree that growth must be resumed as soon as possible. And they share the view that students and the private sector must be expected to make a greater contribution to fund expansion while protecting quality.
All three parties wants to scrap the student loans scheme and replace it with an income contingent loan model, with repayments made through the tax or national insurance system over a long period. Labour might also allow students to go overdrawn with "learning accounts", set up in a national "learning bank", into which students, employers and the state would make regular payments to fund lifelong learning. The Liberal Democrats are also sold on "learning accounts" as another way of increasing student contributions.
The word "voucher" tends to spark controversy whenever it is used, usually by Tory education think-tanks. But the Conservative policy group is not alone in considering the introduction of vouchers to pay fees. Substitute the words "learning entitlement" for "voucher", and the Labour and Liberal Democrat proposals sound very similar to the Tories' - even down to the possible removal of local authorities from fee payments.
Turning to qualifications, a "unified" and "coherent" framework for post-school academic and vocational qualifications is the common theme. More specifically, both the Conservatives and Labour are looking at the idea of a two-year "associate degree". This would fit in with the Liberal Democrats' proposals for new "waystage" qualifications in higher education, with course fees repayable after two years.
Differences in policy are hard to find, but there are a few marked examples. While the Tories would allow institutions to charge top-up fees, Labour is strongly opposed to them and the Liberal Democrats keen to avoid them. Both the Conservatives and Labour are looking at student repayments on maintenance costs, whereas the Liberal Democrats want to keep maintenance grants but introduce repayable fees (after two years).
Finally, there is the question of what to do with the extra funding, once it has been extracted from students and employers. Labour and the Liberal Democrats say that at least some of the money must return to the sector. But the Tories are not so sure. The benefits of their scheme rest on better support for students while they are studying, they say.
Where they stand
Higher education expansion
Divided between Conservative Political Centre's National Policy Group on HE, which wants resumed expansion, and education ministers, who want to keep the lid on growth in degree courses to protect quality. The policy group warns that failure to expand will disappoint employers as well as students and their parents. But ministers, concerned about standards, have questioned the need for more graduates. Institutions should consider developing more vocational and lower level work, they suggest.
Wants to go all-out for renewed expansion throughout further and higher education, which it sees as a "seamless robe" supporting "lifelong learning". Keen to expand work and home-based learning through "University for Industry" and encourage more part-time study as well as growth in traditional provision.
Liberal Democrat Call to bolster quality before moving to resume growth. HE policy consultation document suggests increasing student numbers by around half a million by the year 2000.
Funding and student support
Again views divided between Tory policy group, which wants radical reforms, and ministers, who prefer to maintain the status quo. Policy group proposes grants and loans to be replaced with privatised loans scheme, lifting the lid on borrowing and extending the scheme to part-timers and postgraduates. Vouchers should be issued to all school-leavers with HE entry qualifications to pay flat-rate HE fees, cutting local authorities out of the funding process, it says. Students could use their loans to pay top-up fees above the value of the voucher. But ministers say vouchers are not under consideration. Generally agreed that it is doubtful whether any savings made through reforms would be ploughed back into the sector. Research funding not mentioned in policy group paper. Current system expected to continue.
Planning to phase in "learning accounts", involving contributions from students, employers and the state into a national "learning bank". Initially these would support adult and continuing education and part-time study, but could be extended to full-time provision. General student support would be bolstered, benefits restored and the current loans scheme scrapped. But maintenance repayments would still be expected through a new income-contingent scheme with a longer pay-back period. Fees paid through "learning entitlements" rather than vouchers. Local authorities might lose their current "posting box" role on fee payments. At least some extra resources raised through reforms would be used to fund growth. Education team strongly opposed to top-up fees, but others within the party are not. No detailed proposals on research funding, but spokesman Bryan Davies wants to "end unfairness" of funding distribution under current scheme.
Also keen on student and employer contributions through "learning accounts" to help generate an extra Pounds 8 billion needed to fund growth and other proposals in HE consultation document. Student maintenance means-tested, linked to the benefits system, and not re-payable. But fees repayable after second year in HE. Education team not in favour of top-up fees, but has floated the idea of introducing vouchers or "learning entitlements". Wants public funding for payment of fees and maintenance to be extended to part-time students. Any savings through reforms would be used initially to restore quality. Radical changes proposed for research funding, under which funding council research money would be equally divided between research councils, institutions pursuing research into teaching methods and capital expenditure in the sector.
Qualifications and standards
Protecting standards is at the top of the Conservative education agenda. The party wants close monitoring of the quality of degree, A-level and vocational courses. While Sir Ron Dearing has been commissioned to review qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds, radical changes are not expected in the short term. But the Tory HE policy group wants a new HE credit transfer scheme to be introduced by the Higher Education Quality Council, and a two-year "associate degree" - coupled with General National Vocational Qualifications level 4 - to replace Higher National Diplomas.
The Labour party says it wants a unified qualifications framework, possibly overseen by a new qualifications forum. It has proposed a new, overarching further education qualification, and is also looking at the idea of the "associate degree". No firm proposals yet on quality, but Bryan Davies says he wants a "single, open and independent body for quality control in HE".
HE policy document calls for a coherent, unified framework for all post-14 qualifications. The education team wants a more flexible system which incorporates "core" skills in both academic and vocational programmes. The document also calls for a new, single Quality Council, with its own degree-awarding powers.