THE Liberal Democrats have accused the Government of a third higher education U-turn by offering a "welcome sop" to universities in the form of an extra Pounds 165 million next year.
Education and employment spokesman Don Foster said the Government had been forced to find the money in the face of growing fears that tuition fees would be pocketed by the Treasury with no benefit to cash-strapped universities.
Mr Foster, who spoke to The THES after his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Eastbourne this week, said: "It is a sop but a very welcome sop to the sector.
"First we had the U-turn over Dearing's original flat-rate tuition fee, then the U-turn over the gap-year students and now this. The Government wanted to hit the ground running but if you're going to do this then you should plan your route first."
Mr Foster said the Government had left many funding questions unanswered. He said the extra Pounds 165 million was some Pounds 200 million less than the shortfall identified for 1998 to 1999 by Sir Ron Dearing and that there was no indication of how the Government would bridge the Pounds 565 million funding gap identified for the year after.
Earlier, in his speech to delegates, Mr Foster called for a commitment to ring-fencing cash for tuition fees. Addressing chancellor Gordon Brown, he said: "I know that you're tempted to bring it into your central Treasury pot. Don't. If you do, you'll be forever remembered as the chancellor who introduced a tax on learning - a student poll tax."
Liberal Democrats are sticking by the policy of raising extra money for education by adding a penny to income tax. They say people should receive individual learning accounts that would incorporate contributions from students, the state and business. Mr Foster said further education was a priority and he gave his full backing to the widening participation report by Helena Kennedy QC.
Conference delegates gave further and higher education spokesman Phil Willis a standing ovation after a speech in which he accused Sir Ron Dearing of proposing the wrong funding solution. He said the Government had "compounded the felony" by substituting means-tested tuition fees for Sir Ron's flat-rate fees.
Delegates passed a motion rejecting any policy proposals that would create a disincentive for poorer people wishing to enter tertiary education.
An amendment was also passed calling for financial commitment from the state, students and employers to be ring-fenced for tertiary education.
It reaffirmed the party's commitment to the principle of state-funded tuition fees.