May sees sence in divide and provide

October 8, 1999

Alan Thomson reports from the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool.

The Conservative Party may propose restructuring the university sector along specialist academic or vocational lines as part of its "commonsense revolution".

Shadow education secretary Theresa May said that there was a need to accept that some higher education institutions would do better to focus on vocational courses while others maintained a largely academic approach.

Ms May, who addressed this week's conference in Blackpool for the first time as shadow secretary, told The THES: "We need to stand back and look again at provision. We are looking closely to ensure that we can provide different streams of education, providing for the needs of young people whether academically able or otherwise."

The Conservatives still lack policies on further and higher education. Ms May said that much was still under discussion. She has appointed Tim Boswell, shadow minister for further and higher education, to head a working party to develop policy. The party hopes that its post-16 policies will be ready by next spring.

But Ms May said that the commonsense principles applied to schools that were unveiled at conference would be the guiding themes for post-16 policy.

"The themes I believe will follow through from schools are: choice, diversity and providing an education that is right for every student. It will also be about setting universities free from bureaucracy."

Ms May questioned Tony Blair's higher education participation target. Mr Blair said at last week's Labour Party conference that half of all young people should have had a higher education by the time they reach 30.

Ms May said: "The great danger is that the government is setting targets that might not be right for young people. Higher education is not an appropriate route for everybody. The government should not push people into higher education just to make headlines."

Conservative concerns about university and student funding will feature large in Mr Boswell's remit. His group will study the effects of abolition of maintenance grants and introduction of tuition fees for home undergraduates. Ms May said: "There are indications that abolishing grants may be narrowing the range of students going into higher education. In other words fewer from less well-off backgrounds. This is contrary to the government's widening access policy."

Centralisation and bureaucracy are also key issues for the Conservatives. Ms May said that universities, like schools, would benefit from less government interference. Similar concerns are expressed about the learning and skills council proposed in the Learning to Succeed white paper.

The council will control all post-16 funding except higher education and school sixth-forms. It will have an annual budget of about Pounds 5 billion. The white paper also effectively abolished Training and Enterprise Councils.

"It involves an incredible amount of centralisation. The number of bodies involved in post-16 education before you get to a college or school is beyond belief. It is a recipe for muddle and confusion," she said.

"Another problem with it is that it effectively cuts out business. There is only about half a page in the whole white paper about business involvement. While I accept that not all TECs were good, the role of business is important."

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