Academics who have joined forces to produce a book on Government policy options are split over calls for a reduction in higher education funding.
Contributing authors to Options for Britain: A Strategic Policy Review, launched this week, say any "new" money for education should be used to bolster weak primary and nursery provision, rather than universities and colleges. Greater priority should also be given to funding education and training for the bottom end of the ability range, rather than the high-flyers.
And they agree it is time for politicians to admit that their education plans will be unsustainable unless students start to pay an element of university and college fees.
But they are divided over whether politicians should pledge to transfer some existing higher education resources to the schools and basic skills budgets.
The book is the product of a year-long study sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, aiming to review the long-term policy options available to the Government in the run-up to the next general election and beyond.
One of the authors, Josh Hillman, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and a key adviser on Labour further and higher education thinktanks, holds that existing higher education funding should not be transferred.
More resources should be found for education as a whole, with most of it going to primary, pre-school and basic education, he says. Higher education would be left to find extra funding through student contributions to their maintenance and an element of fees.
Stephen Nickell, professor of economics at Nuffield College, Oxford, and director of the Oxford Institute of Economics and Statistics, argues for more emphasis on training the unskilled.
"Any reasonable costing of such an activity will include the transfer of resources away from the top 30 per cent of the ability range. For example, it must be right to transfer resources from higher education to nursery education and the obvious way to do this is to impose some form of graduate tax," he says.
David Halpern, co-editor of the book and a prize research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, said there was a "resigned consensus" that if the education budget did not grow, resources may have to be diverted away from higher education to primary. "These are tough political decision which are not being squared up to by any of the major parties at the moment." he said.
Options for Britain: A Strategic Policy Review, from Dartmouth Publishing Company, Gower House, Croft Road, Aldershot, Hampshire, Pounds 39.50 hbk, Pounds 17.50 pbk.