Labour assassin shows her claws to joker in pack

September 26, 2003

The gloves came off as the Liberal Democrats and Labour supporters tangled over top-up fees at a conference fringe meeting this week, writes Alan Thomson.

Sensing a bit of a scrap, Monday night's event, organised by Universities UK, the Smith Institute and the Higher Education Policy Institute, attracted one of the biggest education fringe audiences of the week in Brighton. The bout was advertised as "University: what's it worth?" but everyone knew it was about tuition fees, which the Lib Dems loathe.

In one corner was Lib Dem education spokesman Phil "boom boom" Willis (the boom boom refers to the frequent jokes that pepper his otherwise no-nonsense speeches).

In the other corner were Labour peer and wily chief executive of UUK Baroness Warwick and Labour's glamorous assassin Wendy Piatt, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and a key proponent of differential top-up fees.

Mr Willis came out like a Lib Dem bull in a Labour china shop. He accused Baroness Warwick and almost the entire university sector of being "hoodwinked" if they thought top-up fees would mean significantly more money for universities.

In a dig at Dr Piatt (whose work on funding influenced the government's decision to go for differential top-up fees in January's higher education white paper), Mr Willis said that he had no doubt that ministers had "agonised" over the decisions but he then questioned most of the government's (and so Dr Piatt's) reasoning in reaching its conclusions.

Dr Piatt seemed to be trying to woo her audience by telling them how hard she always found it to follow Mr Willis' entertaining and humorous speeches but, before they knew what was happening, she slipped in the knife, ending her eulogy with "...so, I am afraid I can only follow this with fact".

There were sharp intakes of breath, some of them theatrical, from the audience.

Perhaps realising the audience had turned on her, Dr Piatt retracted her claws and confined the rest of her speech to more or less impersonating the government. Disrespectful muttering broke out whenever she spoke.

Baroness Warwick stepped in to try to smooth things over. After claiming there was more that united Lib Dem and UUK (which backs top-up fees) policies on higher education than divided them - no doubt in the same way the Atlantic Ocean unites the north and south poles - Baroness Warwick pleaded the case for the UK's cash-starved universities, which was a bit like saying "let's remember, there are children out there a lot less fortunate than you".

"I hope we are not going to fall out over this issue," she appealed to a stoney-faced Mr Willis who was looking at the paper he was scribbling on, perhaps doodling a gallows with a tiny Dr Piatt swinging from the rope.

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