Learning sidelined in ballot box war

March 25, 2005

Ask veteran political strategists for their thoughts on the coming general election and the message is clear: don't expect Labour or the Tories to say much about higher education between now and polling day.

Most insiders see the coming contest as a "security election" dominated by law and order, Iraq and immigration.

If education attracts Labour and Tory attention at all, it will most likely take the form of a tussle over which party will offer parents greater school choice and which will do more to tighten classroom discipline. Only the Liberal Democrats see higher education as fertile ground for votes, and recent polls for The Times Higher suggest they will go into the campaign as the students' favourite.

But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will talk about science - particularly the promise to invest £10 billion in research over three years - in an ironic echo of Harold Wilson's 1964 pledge to "build socialism in the white heat of the scientific and technological revolution".

But behind Labour and Tory reticence about universities lie different visions for the future of higher education. A glance through the campaign literature of the pre-election "phoney war" finds Labour emphasising how access to university has widened since the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the Tories stress the abolition of fees and greater autonomy for institutions, and the Lib Dems are trumpeting their policy of charging higher income tax to pay for the abolition of tuition fees.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "If we get a small Labour majority, then the status quo will hold.

"If there were a Conservative government we would have less of what we have now - a smaller but still underfunded higher education system, with many students still lacking good means to cover their living costs."

He added: "Under the Lib Dems we would get more of the same as we have now."

One former Labour campaign strategist told The Times Higher : "There won't be any big university stories - higher education was a done deal when the [HE] Bill went through, and it won't figure heavily in this campaign."

Simon Henig, senior politics lecturer at Sunderland University, and co-author of the Politico's Guide to the General Election 2005 , said that while neither Labour nor the Tories would make much of higher education, the Lib Dems would push it in the hope of poaching Labour voters with their no-fees policy.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report last week that compares the impact of each policy on universities and students.

It calculates that by 2006-07, funding would rise from the current £5,900 per student to £7,600 per student under Labour and the Conservatives, and to £7,700 under the Lib Dems.

"This would return funding per student to the levels seen in the early 1990s, but would leave it well below the peak of about £11,000 [in 2006-07 prices] experienced in 1973," the IFS concludes.

Students would leave university with differing debts that, for undergraduates from the poorest backgrounds, the IFS predicts would be £19,340 under Labour, £16,230 under the Tories and £12,340 under the Lib Dems.

Students from the wealthiest backgrounds would graduate with debts of Pounds 18,670 (Labour), £10,730 (Conservative) and £9,250 (Lib Dems).

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

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