As the party manifestos roll out, Paul Hill analyses the promises and evasions
Every political party had the chance to rehearse and refine its higher education policies during last year's debate about tuition fees, leaving few surprises among the manifestos.
But how do the parties' lines measure up to what students, academics and vice-chancellors want to hear?
There is considerable common ground among higher education lobby groups.
Most agree on the need for a better funding settlement for part-time students, a rise in funding overall and better pay for staff.
The National Union of Students was the first to publish its manifesto. It calls for the abolition of tuition fees and the bursary scheme, the introduction of a post-qualification application system and the adoption of the Tomlinson reforms of 14-to-19 education.
Universities UK has stressed that a future government - of whatever party colour - must strive to increase higher education funding from its current level of 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product to the 1 per cent average for developed countries. UUK emphasises university autonomy over admissions and the need for a "lighter regulatory regime" - while asking the Government to increase teaching funding and pay "100 per cent of the cost of publicly funding research".
The Russell Group of large research-led universities is unlikely to lobby publicly during the election campaign, but it is understood that the group will urge the parties to commit to filling the funding gap faced by its members and to fully fund research at those institutions "best placed" to conduct it.
Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, the umbrella body that represents post-92 institutions, wants an end to the "stranglehold" of research concentration, a fairer visa system for international students and recognition of the perceived divide between the old and new universities.
The two academic unions, the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe, were due to issue a joint manifesto on Friday with a series of proposals ranging from a higher post-16 staying-on rate, better teaching funding and a moratorium on course closures. The unions will call for half of universities' income gained from top-up fees from 2006 to be spent on staff, an end to casualisation and for academe to become a "standard-bearer" for equality in terms of gender and ethnicity.
Paul Mackney, Natfhe's general secretary, said: "With almost 120,000 potential voters, our votes count, and we are urging our members to take the election seriously."
Sally Hunt, the AUT's general secretary, added: "It is about time policymakers truly listened to the staff who work in our universities and colleges."
MANIFESTOS AT A GLANCE
* Invest £1 billion more in Britain's science base and raise public spending on higher education by 34 per cent in real terms
* Reinvest a quarter of money raised by top-up fees from 2006 in bursaries for poor students
* No increase in £3,000 tuition fee - other than annual "uprating" to take account of inflation - during the next Parliament
* Maintain the pledge for 50 per cent of young people entering higher education by 2010
* See through a 30 per cent rise in the average PhD stipend to make doctoral research more attractive
* Incentives to encourage universities to raise more charitable donations and private endowments.
* Scrap tuition fees and introduce government-funded national scholarships
* Abolish the Office for Fair Access and scrap the target of sending 50 per cent of young people into higher education by the end of the decade
* Spend £3 billion extra to modernise teaching facilities
* Set up an £18 billion endowment scheme to match private donations with public money
* Create a new Student Loans Trust that allows students to borrow more but at a "low commercial rate" of interest, repayable when earnings top Pounds 15,000
* Allocate teaching funding according to student numbers to allow universities to control their size.
* Free full and part-time higher education for anyone with A-level or equivalent qualifications at any time in their lives
* Encourage universities to widen access across social classes by considering attributes other than exam results
* Abolish all tuition fees and introduce £2,000 maintenance grants for poor students
* Encourage universities to introduce modular courses, allowing students to "pick and mix" course contents to make up their degree
* New whistleblower rights for staff and students to "draw attention to irregularities" at their institution
* Make public the decisions of university governing bodies.
* Abolish tuition fees and student loans and reintroduce maintenance grants paid for by a progressive tax system.
UK Independence Party
* Abolish tuition fees and student loans and reintroduce maintenance grants.
* Review all undergraduate courses and close "weak" courses and reallocate funds to other departments.
Scottish National Party
* Abolish student loans and replace them with grants
* Abolish Scotland's graduate endowment scheme.
* Abolish tuition fees and student loans in favour of grants
* Allocate higher proportion of UK science funding to Welsh universities.