Alan Thomson reports from the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton.
A "passport to higher education" scheme would put power in the hands of students when it came to buying courses and ensuring the quality of the learning they receive, the Liberal Democrats said this week.
New policy being developed by the party would create a market in higher education but not, they said, of the sort outlined by the government, which could leave less popular universities with little option but to merge with more successful institutions or even close.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis told The THES that the passport could be similar to individual learning accounts, which allowed adults cash credits to buy courses. Proper quality control of such a system would be paramount, he said, as the ILA scheme collapsed last year amid accusations of fraud.
Mr Willis, who will visit the US to look at schemes run by Harvard and Yale universities, said: "We are at the embryonic stage of looking at post-18 passports. Students would get the equivalent of learning cheques, which they could invest in higher education modules. They would form their own contracts with universities and draw money from their virtual accounts, "The process is about engaging students at the heart of the education market. We are trying to find a way of engaging students at the cutting edge of the educational product they are receiving rather than them being at the receiving end of the product. If it is a market, then it is a market in quality and accessibility. We are saying that students should have an ability to transport themselves and their educational opportunities."
Mr Willis said that the government and universities had to consider radical reform of course structures, assessment and funding to allow students to buy as much or as little of a higher education course as they wanted.
He said that there was a need to deliver more higher education in the further education sector, which he said was how Scotland had managed to achieve participation rates approaching 50 per cent.
He also said there was a need to look at how courses were assessed and said that the traditional final-degree exams were not best suited to people studying part time over extended periods. But Mr Willis warned the government that part-time education, delivered in bite-sized chunks to suit students, was not a cheap option because of the additional costs that such flexibility entailed for institutions.
At a fringe meeting, Mr Willis rounded on higher education minister Margaret Hodge who told vice-chancellors at their annual conference a fortnight ago that the government wanted a market in higher education in which universities would sink or swim.
Mr Willis told delegates: "Higher education must be a comprehensive product, but one that meets a plethora of demands. It must be capable of producing Nobel prizewinning scientists, yet allow the manual labourer to upgrade his HND to a degree. It must allow institutions freedom to follow individual missions reflecting regional, international and international objectives.
"To meet these demands does require planning, coordination and, yes, an element of control by government, but the last thing it wants is exposure to unbridled market forces. However, to meet such diverse objectives structural change is inevitable."
Speakers at the fringe meeting, organised jointly by Universities UK and the independent think-tank Social Market Foundation, included UUK chief executive Baroness Warwick and SMF director Philip Collins.
Dr Collins said that the government could not have it both ways in higher education. He said: "It either liberalises the system or it funds it properly. There is no other option."