Could an elite university go private? What would a “One Nation” higher education policy look like? How can excellence in teaching be rewarded?
Those are among the questions being asked by figures within the three main political parties, as thoughts start to turn to 2015 manifestos and the higher education commitments each will offer to the electorate.
The Conservatives are perhaps the most open in their policy debates so far. The right-wing Free Enterprise Group published a paper last week, titled Completing the Reform, Freeing the Universities. It proposes annual savings of £5.7 million from the higher education budget - principally via replacing what is left of state grants with philanthropy - and the ultimate scrapping of the Office for Fair Access.
The report, written by John Glen, MP for Salisbury, proposes that the government relax the fees cap to allow differential tuition charges by subject.
With former Tory education secretary Lord Baker of Dorking also having recently advocated removing the fees cap and allowing leading universities to go private, a groundswell on increased fees freedom for universities may be growing in the party.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Glen, a former head of the Conservative Research Department, praised the party’s 2001 manifesto commitments on higher education, which he said were about “freeing the universities and encouraging endowments and self-sufficiency”.
“It seems to me the Conservative Party should be thinking on these lines again,” he added.
With regard to its Offa suggestion, the group’s agenda could be a challenge to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who hails from the party’s modernising wing. A recent book by the modernising Bright Blue group, of which he is a member, called for a state-backed postgraduate loans system, while also calling for a “real market” in higher education.
Labour’s obvious challenge is on funding: whether to stick with something resembling its present holding policy to lower fees to £6,000, or opt for a graduate tax.
Many in Labour are clear in their strong desire to avoid any market in fees. They see a credible and popular policy in this area as a potential major vote winner.
The ideal scenario for them is a graduate tax that avoids any up-front price tag. But it all comes down to the financial wiggle room that will be set by the shadow chancellor, currently Ed Balls.
If that is too small for a graduate tax, then a lower, flat-rate unvariable fee repaid through taxation could be a policy solution.
Shabana Mahmood, the shadow minister for universities and science, is thought likely to start setting out her broader philosophy soon, and may have to work her policies within the “One Nation” vision set by party leader Ed Miliband.
For the Lib Dems, the party’s post-16 education review is examining its funding choices - members will debate the review at the spring conference in March, before voting on its final proposals at the autumn conference. The party’s election manifesto will then be written by the Federal Policy Committee, “based on the agreed policies of the party but updating them where necessary”.
Baroness Brinton, the Lib Dem peer and former bursar of two University of Cambridge colleges, who is chairing the education policy review, said options include lowering fees to pre-2012 levels “with earlier repayment and fewer scholarships” than at present, continuing with the present system or moving “to a clearer graduate contribution”.
She added that the review aims to “identify a measure that really strengthens and celebrates excellence in teaching”; to include “measures to preserve strategically important and vulnerable subjects”; and to see “what we can do to support UK students undertaking postgraduate qualifications”.
On recent reports that senior Lib Dems want to lower fees to £6,000, Lady Brinton referred to the party’s democratic decisions on policy. “Senior people in the party have as much right as anyone else to try to influence us, but they can’t take it over,” she said.
The lay of the land
The Right’s Free Enterprise Group will do battle on the manifesto with arch-moderniser David Willetts, the universities and science minister. No party is likely to go into the election with a direct pledge to raise fees, but more freedom for universities will be a battle cry for the Tory Right in particular, along with criticism of the Office for Fair Access.
Shabana Mahmood, the shadow universities and science minister, is currently working on a higher education policy review. She has expressed interest in “that hybrid world between a straight fees system and a straight graduate-tax system”. A wider policy review led by Jon Cruddas is unlikely to offer any detail on fees and funding.
The Lib Dems are the only major party where members vote on policy - is that an electoral blessing or a curse? The party’s autumn conference will finalise a party policy to replace its infamous pledge to phase out fees. The options on the table are to lower fees, to stick with the current system or to go for a graduate tax.