PM gives blessing to radical reforms

October 4, 2002

Bold reform in higher education was given new impetus this week as prime minister Tony Blair set out his vision for a revamp of public services.

Higher education minister Margaret Hodge said Mr Blair's speech to the Labour Party conference in Blackpool gave his blessing to her radical plans for a market system that could lead to the closure of unpopular courses and institutions.

Mr Blair told delegates that the public sector had to choose the path of reform and step up the pace of progress. While not referring to any particular sector, Mr Blair said that it was time to reform longstanding institutions. He said it was the end of "big state" control and one-size-fits-all, mass-production public service.

He called for a redrafting of the partnership between the public and private sectors. He said that power and choice had to be placed in the hands of people using public services. And he said reform was the road to social justice, not its denial.

It was clear from Mr Blair's speech that there would be no retreat on private finance initiatives, which are used increasingly by universities to build and run facilities such as student halls of residence.

Trade unions, uneasy with private companies operating in the public sector, had voted the previous day for a review of PFI.

The prime minister's calls for reform were welcomed immediately by Ms Hodge, who in recent weeks has repeatedly challenged universities to embrace a freer market that hands power to students as consumers.

While courses and institutions could close in such a market, Ms Hodge has made it clear that there would be a safety net to ensure that a market would not undermine provision that was socially and economically necessary.

Ms Hodge told The THES : "The prime minister's speech confirmed my thoughts and has added resolution to my plans to put students at the centre of higher education and ensure that where there is market failure and a public interest, then we intervene."

The call for reform across the education sector was amplified on Wednesday by education secretary Estelle Morris. She picked up Mr Blair's call for reforms in schools to create a post-comprehensive era and linked it directly to improving higher education opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Department for Education and Skills is still working on its blueprint for higher education, which is expected in November.

Speaking at a Universities UK and Social Market Foundation fringe meeting, Ms Hodge said: "Empowering citizens is central to where we want to go."

But vice-chancellors remain sceptical. UUK president Roderick Floud, speaking at the same meeting, called for joint working groups with government to help Labour define its strategy.

Ms Hodge said later that she was not going to have more working groups, though she stressed that the DFES had listened to and consulted with higher education and would continue to do so.

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