Alan Thomson reports from the Lib Dem's conference in Bournemouth
Access premiums for universities, free tuition and the effective abolition of the higher education funding council are just some of the radical proposals expected in the Liberal Democrats' forthcoming policy review.
A significant increase in funding through access premiums is proposed for universities that recruit and retain students from under-represented groups. Fees would be abolished, and eventually everyone would have access to cradle-to-grave learning accounts, covering tuition and maintenance. At the same time, the Higher Education Funding Council for England should be merged with the Learning and Skills Council to create a new Learning Council (England).
All three proposals are expected in the Liberal Democrats' revised higher education policy, due for publication early next month.
Speaking to The THES at this week's conference, Evan Harris, the party's spokesman for higher education, science and women, said that current funding for access was pathetically small, given the government's avowed intention to increase participation by people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Dr Harris said: "Access funding amounts to about 0.06 per cent of university funding. So, it is small fry."
Universities have long pointed out that it costs more to recruit and retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds than those from traditional university-going backgrounds.
The government does allocate funds to universities, through Hefce, based upon how well they do in attracting disadvantaged students, judged against individual institutional benchmarks. But even those institutions, primarily the post-1992 universities, that do well can expect only a few hundred thousand pounds extra. This compares with the tens of millions of pounds that some institutions, mainly in the less socially inclusive pre-1992 sector, gain for research.
Dr Harris said that access funding would follow the student so that universities would get, perhaps, a third of the premium upon recruiting a student from a disadvantaged background with the balance paid when that student graduates. Dr Harris said that this would reduce dropout rates, which are higher among students from poorer backgrounds.
The Liberal Democrats are almost certain to retain their opposition to undergraduate tuition fees. Conference agreed this week that free tuition should be offered to all 16 to 24-year-olds, and in the longer term all adults, studying for work-related level-three qualifications, broadly equivalent to A level.
But next month's proposals are expected to go further. The party is set to recommend that individual learning accounts be expanded with far greater public funding than the current Pounds 150 per person. They would be available to everyone for all levels of study, including higher education.
Businesses would be expected to contribute significantly. Key to increasing business involvement would be the creation of a Learning Council (England) that could encourage employers to offer more paid leave and other support to employees wishing to do higher education and training courses, according to proposals. The hope is that employers would be more likely to see the relevance and benefits of university-level education for employees if higher education was harnessed to a national learning agenda over which they had some control.
But moves to harness the higher education sector to employer needs through a vast new quango may be resisted by universities, protective of their educational autonomy. One vice-chancellor said: "I can't see this going down particularly well with most institutions."