Higher education is one of Labour's top ten manifesto priorities, underlining Tony Blair's commitment to increase investment in universities and create a National Health university if elected for a second term on June 7.
The manifesto, Ambitions for Britain , says: "It is time for a historic commitment to open higher education to half of all young people before they are 30, combined with increased investment to maintain academic strengths."
There is also a manifesto commitment to rule out top-up fees for the next Parliament. And there are commitments to strengthen research and teaching excellence.
The manifesto says that a Labour government will support research and encourage the development of private/public partnerships in this area. There is a commitment to ensure universities "have the freedom and incentives" to meet the ambitious targets set, it says.
The sector was surprised by the announcement of a university for the NHS. Labour wants to guarantee to staff at all levels in the NHS opportunities for training and career development, and the manifesto promises individual learning accounts worth £300 a year.
A Labour Party spokesman said: "We see this as an Open University for the NHS. We envisage a number of centres running distance-learning courses throughout the country. This is a hugely ambitious project and it is hoped that eventually every NHS employee will have a qualification."
The spokesman said that it was not yet clear whether the University of the NHS would accredit courses itself or go through existing institutions. "We want to make the NHS one of the country's best employers," he said.
Before publication of the manifesto, Mr Blair made it clear that higher and further education would receive extra cash under a future Labour government.
While visiting Warwick University last Tuesday, Mr Blair said that higher education could expect improved investment and that a Labour government would support greater entrepreneurship in institutions.
Then, in response to a parliamentary question from Tory MP Andrew Rowe about academic pay last Wednesday, Mr Blair said: "The honourable gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that we need more resources in further and higher education, which is why we are putting that money in.
"However, our priority during the first few years was to get the money into nurseries and primary schools. In the second term, if we are elected, we also want to get money into secondary schools and universities."
Mr Blair told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Monday that having addressed the resourcing of primary schools "we must now address I universities and science and technology".
Minister of state for education and employment Baroness Blackstone reinforced the prime minister's funding commitments in an interview with The THES .
"I do not think that we have actually started thinking about the details of how we will fund the increases for further and higher education that the prime minister promised.
"What I can say is that I know that it is a promise that will be kept. He has asserted again that education is our top priority in the next government and that will include higher education and further education. There is no question about it," she said.
Baroness Blackstone said that the bulk of any additional funds for higher education was likely to come from the public purse. She said that David Blunkett, who will become home secretary if Labour wins the election, was right to rule out top-up fees as a source of additional revenue for universities for the duration of the next Parliament. She said they were unnecessary.
But the minister expressed regret that the government failed to allocate extra cash for university pay earlier in its first term.
She said: "I suppose, if I have my hand on my heart, I would have liked to have started a little earlier with the additional ring-fenced funding to support teachers in higher education and staff more generally."
But she added that she was pleased with the extra £330 million ringfenced for salaries and salary structures for 2001-04. The investment will be £50 million in 2001-02, rising to £110 million in 2002-03 and £170 million the year after.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "We welcome the fact that higher education is a top priority for all the main parties. The important issue is that the government needs to find a way to fill the £900 million funding gap identified by Universities UK. It is vital that this funding requirement is met. It is the government's choice how it does this."
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