Greg Clark has warned that a Labour £6,000 fee policy would be a “huge step backwards” and leave a “fiscal black hole”.
But the universities and science minister again refused to support proposals to remove overseas students from the net migration target when he spoke at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on 30 September.
Mr Clark, who combines his brief with a continued role in the Cabinet Office as minister for cities, did not make a speech in the main hall at conference and his sole higher education fringe appearance saw him arrive late and leave early.
That brought criticism from Toni Pearce, the National Union of Students president who was also on the fringe panel.
Mr Clark told the meeting, hosted by Million+ and the NUS, that there was a “curious absence of any real discussion of higher education and universities at the Labour Party Conference, which I think is extraordinary this far before an election”.
Referring to Labour’s consideration of a policy to lower fees to £6,000, he said that “this playing around with the idea of reversing some of the reforms – reforms that followed a commission appointed by the previous government, which attracted cross-party support – I think that has shades of the French government [of François Hollande] repealing and playing around with important fundamental reforms, opening up a huge fiscal black hole”.
Mr Clark argued that a Labour £6,000 policy would create “a situation which no university wants where you’d have to go cap in hand to the Treasury every year just to maintain the status quo in funding. It’s a huge step backwards.”
Michael Gunn, the Staffordshire University vice-chancellor and Million+ chair, said the “big questions” the Conservatives “needed to answer” ahead of the election included “will a Conservative government raise fees, and if so by how much?”.
He also argued that on international students and the net migrant target, the Conservatives should at least pledge to hold a review and look at the case for change after the election.
Mr Clark said that classing overseas students as immigrants was “an internationally agreed definition”.
He added: “As long as you have the guarantee – and I give it again – that there will be no cap on overseas students, then the inclusion in or out of the official figures…that is not the policy that bites. The policy that bites is: is there a cap on the number of people coming from overseas to UK universities? And there isn’t.”
On fees, Mr Clark said that his predecessor, David Willetts, thought £9,000 fees “reflect the costs” of teaching. “I’m not persuaded, and neither was he…that the fee cap that’s there is not adequate to meet the needs of the teaching budget,” added Mr Clark.
Ms Pearce tweeted after the meeting that “we got 20 minutes” of the minister talking on higher education at the conference, “where he complained that [Labour] didn’t speak about HE enough and said everything’s fine!”