The Liberal Democrats would abolish fees, raise standards and offer greater choice, promises Charles Kennedy
Universities have felt beleaguered for decades. Under the Conservatives, they suffered blow after blow, cut after cut. They had great hopes of the Labour Party when it came back to power in 1997. Instead, the slide has continued.
Freedom is the essence of liberal democracy, and nowhere should this be more evident than in higher education. It is particularly important to restore the freedom that guarantees that talented students from poorer backgrounds can go to our best universities.
Liberal Democrats are fundamentally opposed to tuition fees, but these would have been slightly more defensible had they led to an increase in resources available to universities. In fact, income per student has continued to decline. We want to scrap tuition fees in the whole of the UK just as we have done as part of the government in Scotland, and we remain fundamentally opposed to top-up fees. Tuition fees are a tax on learning.
It is much fairer to raise the top rate of income tax to 50p in the pound for those earning more than £100,000 a year. A substantial part of the £4 billion raised would go to higher and further education.
The Conservatives now say they would abolish fees - but the problem is that they have signed up to only half the policy. They would scrap fees but offer no way of generating extra funds to replace them. The only means they have to abolish fees is by cutting 80,000 student places in our universities and making 6,000 university teachers redundant. The Conservatives say that a great many university courses are of no real value - although they have not revealed the basis on which they made that judgement. They scoff at graduates of media studies and golf course management without asking why these courses are offered in the first place.
No doubt standards on some courses are not as high as on others, but whether a cull on this scale is justified seems very doubtful.
Of the extra money we would earmark for further and higher education, £700 million would compensate for abolishing fees. The rest would be used to raise standards and expand the scope of the system. The three-year honours degree would still be a significant part of higher education but need not be a three-year residential experience for all undergraduates.
The foundation degree course we propose would last two years full time, although it could also be spread over a longer period of part-time study.
Students would normally attend a college or university near their home.
Foundation degrees would concentrate on the practical skills of which we are so short. We would invest the bulk of the extra resources to ensure that all areas of the country had a college or university offering a wide range of courses within reasonable daily commuting distance for home students. At the moment there are counties such as Cornwall where this is not the case.
Standards of honours degree courses would be raised. As a result, slightly fewer students might take these courses, but so be it. Our universities should not be in the business of dumbing down. Foundation degrees would, in any case, be part of a more flexible system. Able students would be encouraged to use these degrees as an entry into honours programmes when they felt ready to take that step. The syllabus should be redesigned to divide courses into modules from which students would accumulate credits, as they do in the US. All could study part or full time and be able to take breaks in their studies without having to start again if they drop out. And it would be easy for them to move on from the foundation stage to honours.
We are determined to resist the highly retrograde change represented by top-up fees, which are a sure-fire way of deterring even more students from poorer homes from applying to the best universities. This would have been outrageous enough from a Conservative government, but it flies in the face of all the values the Labour Party used to represent.
The government's 50 per cent participation target seems to have been plucked out of the air at random, and we would not seek to attain it. Like all good investments, investment in higher education yields huge dividends.
First, by ensuring a higher standard of education at both the higher and the further level, the prosperity of the country as a whole is increased so that everyone benefits. Second, if graduates go on to well-paid jobs, they pay back the cost of their education through the tax system. Those who go on to earn mega salaries will contribute through the more progressive tax proposals we have made. A tax on those best able to pay must be fairer than a tax that puts young people off becoming students.
Charles Kennedy is leader of the Liberal Democrats.