Johnson promises sector a freer rein

October 6, 2006

Claire Sanders reports from the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth

Shadow Higher Education Minister Boris Johnson promised universities more autonomy under a Conservative Government and offered a fierce critique of previous Tory policies at a party conference fringe meeting held this week.

Sticking to higher education and remaining largely on message, unlike his more wide-ranging performances at other fringe events, Mr Johnson said that the Conservatives were now firmly in favour of expanding student numbers. He also said that their previous policy of opposing tuition fees, which he had never supported, was fundamentally "anti-aspirational".

"When I visit my constituents' homes I am always struck by the graduation pictures on their mantelpieces. They are clearly a source of great pride," he said. "In the past, our policy has sounded hostile to these aspirations."

He added that there were nevertheless important questions to be asked about standards and autonomy.

"Universities should be allowed to offer scholarships to bright students and those in shortage subjects," he said. "This would both raise standards and encourage students into what are perceived as difficult subjects, such as maths and science."

He also said that universities should offer financial rewards to those gaining firsts. "This will again raise standards and stop universities handing out so many," he said.

Stopping short of calling for the current £3,000 cap on tuition fees to be lifted, Mr Johnson nevertheless said that it would be better if funding followed the student.

"At the moment, the higher education funding council limits how many students a university can recruit. In the long run that cannot be right,"

Mr Johnson said. "If the funding follows the student, this will introduce a greater degree of competition into the system and drive up standards."

Although he did not mention the word "vouchers", he has previously expressed an interest in such a system, which would give students a direct funding entitlement to "spend" on higher education courses.

But the idea is not likely to curry much favour with David Willetts, Shadow Education Secretary, who argued against vouchers as a means of funding schools at a fringe event with Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools.

John Hayes, Shadow Minister for Vocational Education, also stressed the pro-expansion message at other fringe events.

"The key point is that we need a far more skilled workforce. There needs to be far greater collaboration between schools, employers and further and higher education if we are to deliver on this," he said.

The threat of competition from China and India and the importance of improving the skills of the UK workforce was a constant theme of platform speakers.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said: "A-level maths entries have halved.

Now university science departments are closing. That's exactly the wrong track for the new global economy."

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