It's my party...

October 8, 2004

Richard Teather, a lecturer at Bournemouth University, accepts that it is not a great time to be a member of the Conservative Party.

After voters in last week's Hartlepool by-election put the official Opposition in fourth place, polls published as delegates gathered for their annual conference in Bournemouth this week showed that Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader, was even less popular than Iain Duncan Smith, the leader the Tories ousted last year.

But for someone who joined the party under Margaret Thatcher, as an Oxford University law undergraduate in 1989, Mr Teather remained resolutely upbeat and on message.

"Of course the polls are disappointing, but I don't think Hartlepool means anything - voters are a bit smarter than that," he said.

"At Hartlepool, they knew there was no point voting Tory. People vote differently at different elections.

"We've done well in local elections. We've done well in Europe. There are a lot of people out there who are not voting and need to be shown that there is an alternative. We can show that."

For Mr Teather, a senior lecturer in finance and law, the Tories' recently announced policy on higher education demonstrates why party members should remain optimistic. He denied that the Government's top-up fees policy was the Tories' natural territory.

"At first glance, you think that Labour's policy to charge top-up tuition fees is good because it creates an additional stream of income, independent from government," he said.

"But when you look in detail, the fee is actually just a government charge that ensures more central interference and puts many more constraints on universities."

As a committed champion of the free market and a fan of "small government", Mr Teather said he would be "delighted" with a Conservative policy to liberate universities completely from the state through full privatisation.

"But I can't see any Treasury coming up with the billions of pounds that would be needed as a lump sum to free universities properly through endowment," he said.

As a practical and viable alternative, he is happy with the Tories' plan to fund universities through charging a commercial interest rate on student loans.

This allows market forces to dictate the shape of the sector, with universities left to sink or swim depending on their recruitment.

Indeed, as a 33-year-old who joined the higher education sector only four years ago - he halved the salary he earned as a tax expert in the City to downsize into the academy - Mr Teather is even bold enough to claim that the Tory Party is the natural home for all academics.

"I don't know why there are not more Conservative academics," he said.

"We are in favour of high standards in education, examining people, keeping selective, small government, freedom. You would think that, on the face of it, being an academic is quite a Conservative thing to be."

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