The Labour Party is to examine a voucher system for funding further and higher education, writes Tony Tysome.
Think tanks set up by Labour's education team will weigh up whether vouchers would create a more equitable funding regime or more red tape.
Academics helping the party to put together a "lifelong learning" policy paper are interested in the idea of using vouchers to help expand education and training opportunities and to form a funding "coalition" between the state, the student and industry.
The move comes as a Cabinet committee considers the conclusions of a report on options for the introduction of voucher funding for post-16 education and training. The Government is keeping the report under wraps, but some key members of the committee, such as Employment Secretary Michael Portillo, are known to support voucher funding.
Labour's deliberations on vouchers are led by David Robertson, director of public policy and policy development at Liverpool John Moores University, who is a member of two of the party's key further and higher education think tanks.
Professor Robertson is keen to pursue ideas on voucher funding outlined in his discussion paper Choosing to Change, published by the Higher Education Quality Council last year.
At the time of drafting the paper, ministers were enthusiastic for his suggestion that "public opinion and relevant interested parties might be now prepared to consider an educational voucher for higher education as an acceptable means of funding further growth and participation".
This week he said: "There is no reason why it should be the property of right-wing politicians alone to discuss vouchers. If we are looking for a way to open up higher education equitably to groups that are not benefitting from it at the moment then vouchers could be the way to go."
Vouchers could be issued through a "learning bank" that would pool investment from the state, industry and students. Students could "spend" them at the institution of their choice - giving power to the consumer.
"It's not just about solving the student maintenance problem or about finding more money to do the same thing - it's about changing the relationship between learners and institutions so that a broader range of provision can be offered to a broader range of people," he added.