The Liberal Democrats' new education spokesman, Phil Willis, has called on top universities to account for the hundreds of millions in taxpayers' cash they receive for research.
Mr Willis issued his challenge to research-led universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, within days of replacing Don Foster as the party's education spokesman. It may mark the party's tougher policy line under new leader Charles Kennedy.
Mr Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) said that such universities, which this year will receive the bulk of the Pounds 855 million channelled through the funding councils for research, had to justify the funding in terms of their extra worth to both regional and national economies.
"We have to challenge the elite universities to justify the funding we plough into them. We want them to be full partners within a new educational agenda so they must look beyond their own institutional needs to those of their regions and the country as a whole," he said.
Mr Willis has also called for an honest acknowledgement of the differences in the quality of degrees available. He said: "We cannot ignore the fact that there is disparity between degrees awarded by different institutions. That is not to say that it is a fault of the system but a strength. Rather than saying all degrees are equal we should be supporting specialisms and differences."
Already Mr Willis has made it clear that he will promote Liberal Democrat policies distinct from those of the government and the Conservatives. He said he wanted to expose the Labour government's lack of ambition in education policy. One of the first battlegrounds will be over the Learning to Succeed white paper. Mr Willis will press the government to justify excluding higher education from the white paper.
MP Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon) replaces Mr Willis as spokesman for higher education but with added responsibility for women's issues. Meanwhile, Bath MP Mr Foster, who wanted to move after more than seven years as education spokesman, is now spokesman for the environment, transport, regions and social justice.
Mr Foster said: "I am going to find it very difficult not dealing with education, but I am determined not to do a Lady Thatcher. Having said that, there are parts of my new brief, such as the regions and social justice, which will allow me to continue to take an interest in education."
Two academics, both part of the 1997 intake, also make it on to the Liberal Democrats' front bench. Steve Webb (Northavon), formerly professor of social policy at Bath University, is the new social security spokesman. Vincent Cable (Twickenham), who lectured in economics at Glasgow University, is the new trade and industry spokesman.
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