Eric Forth, the higher education minister, has refused to take up the Conservative Political Centre thinktank's radical proposals on funding.
The CPC's report, The Future of Britain's Universities, calls for wider participation in higher education now that the school stay-on rate has shot up to 60 per cent. To fund this, it would like to see privatised maintenance loans repaid through income tax or national insurance on an income contingent basis.
Speaking at the report's launch in London, Mr Forth questioned the idea of widening participation, talking of the "dreadful 1990s word inclusion" and suggesting that those who wanted more people in universities are in the "feel-good business". "It needs to be asked whether the current rate of 30 per cent is about the right proportion," he said.
Mr Forth was also unenthusiastic about the idea of income contingent loans, which have proved successful in Australia. "One of the things that irritates me at the moment is that people think that if you talk about income contingent loans frequently enough, the problem will go away. That simply won't do."
Mr Forth called for a public exchange of ideas: "What we need now is a debate, a dialogue: whither higher education?" But his comments received short shrift from Clive Booth, Oxford Brookes vice chancellor and outgoing vice-chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals: "For too long Government has been saying 'we need a debate'. However, the time has come for some decision." Dr Booth said the fact that Mr Forth is calling for answers to some basic questions about participation and funding implied that he had been "very badly briefed".
Sir Eric Ash, former rector of Imperial College London and non-executive director of the Student Loans Company, also criticised the minister, saying that, while the income contingent loan idea is not "an alternative to thought", it is "entirely sensible" and will have to come eventually "in one form or other". "One buys a house over 20 years, why not an education over 20 years?" he said.
Among other key proposals, the CPC report recommends: * uniform minimum fees paid through a portable voucher scheme * national higher education academic credit transfer scheme * two-year "associate" degrees linked to GNVQ level 4.