Labour will look to the Dearing committee to fill in the detail on its plans for higher education funding reform. The plans, formally launched this week, represent a shift from previous Labour party thinking on student contributions.
The Lifelong Learning document does not detail how the repayment system would work. It says that it would be "linked both to the ability to pay and to the time when the student can afford to pay it".
Labour's national policy forum discussed the paper, which will act as a party policy document and a submission to Dearing, last week-end. The party is looking to base student contributions on repayment of maintenance rather than a proportion of tuition fees, the basis of most previous proposals including those considered by former further and higher education spokesman Jeff Rooker three years ago.
Repayments may be spread over a period of up to 20 years, as opposed to the five years of the present loan system. The detail of who should be eligible, how high levels of support should be and how repayments are made will, Labour expects, be examined by Dearing when he looks at possible reformed funding models. The National Insurance system is a likely conduit for repayments.
David Blunkett, shadow education and employment secretary, said that Dearing "will have the ability to do the minutely detailed work that it is not possible for an opposition to do".
Labour rejected suggestions that putting the students who would enjoy a full grant Q 33 per cent at present Q into a repayment system was regressive. "They may lose out in having to repay, but those repayments will be dependent on having a good income after graduation. And they and the system will be better supported while they are students," said Bryan Davies, shadow spokesman on further and higher education.
Mr Davies said there was concern about the gap between the skills acquired by students and those wanted by employers, particularly in communication and teamwork. Vocational elements in degrees would address this.
The party accepts research selectivity but calls on Dearing to look at ways of improving funding council assessment and support of research. On adult education the party says local authorities may be required to maintain minimum levels of non-vocational adult education.
The proposals for reformed funding were welcomed by the National Union of Students and received warily by the main lecturers' unions. But Eric Forth, minister for higher education, said it was "a huge burden on the taxpayer and on business".
Mr Davies said Labour had received expert advice that the cost of loans could be kept out of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. It is hoped that financial institutions will be prepared to join public-private partnerships to fund the system, given the security of a Government guarantee and low default rates on National Insurance.
Labour's proposals: the key issues For higher education: * Student contribution to maintenance * Vocational core to degrees * Individual learning accounts * A learning bank as proposed by the Commission on Social Justice * A single quality agency * Equity of funding between teaching and research.
* New centres of research excellence * A national credit framework * An external appeals procedure for staff and students * A register of interests and code of conduct for governing bodies and representation on them for staff and students.
For tertiary education and training: * Further Education Funding Council regional committees to be strengthened and some funding devolved to them * Local partnerships with key stakeholders * A reformed careers service and inspectorates * Improved teacher training and professional development * A review of FEFC methodology * Local authority, staff and student representation on governing bodies * Abolition of the Youth Training Programme * Target 2000 programme to get all 18-year-olds to level 2 (intermediate skills) * Four options for young people out of work for more than six months: full-time education; employment subsidised by payment to the employer; voluntary service; or Environmental Task Force * A fairer and more coherent system of discretionary awards * Relaxation of the 16-hour rule