The political hot potatoes

September 25, 1998

As the party conference season gets under way, The THES asked the government and the opposition parties what they see as the next big political issues facing higher education. Each spokesperson was asked to consider funding, access, expansion, further education, quality, autonomy and research.

Baroness Blackstone, higher education minister

I am passionately committed to enhancing opportunities and improving standards in further and higher education. This is a key part of the government's campaign to offer more people the chance to benefit from education at university or college.

We have taken radical steps to help meet these objectives. With new investment from our changes to student support and from the comprehensive spending review, universities and other institutions will have nearly Pounds 500 million, or 5 per cent, more this year and next.

We are committed to providing places in higher education to all capable of benefiting. Students from less well-off families do not have to pay fees. We have provided safeguards for other students against the possibility of a future government increasing fees in real terms.

By keeping the efficiency gain to the 1 per cent maximum recommended by the Dearing report, we expect institutions to maintain and enhance the quality of teaching and learning for students and the standards they achieve.

We are developing measures to widen access and opportunities in higher education. We have already doubled the level of access funds to help disadvantaged students and extended coverage of the funds to include students on part-time courses. Last week I announced that we will abolish fees for students in receipt of benefits on part-time courses.

There is also going to be substantial investment in research infrastructure of some Pounds 1 billion over three years. This will enable British universities to enhance their world-class research achievements. The government has also set up a Pounds 50 million Challenge Fund to provide seed-corn money to enable research to be applied successfully by business.

The Quality Assurance Agency is pressing ahead with plans to link degree standards to appropriate benchmarks and is pursuing assessments of the quality of teaching and learning. The agency is also developing a framework for qualifications to encourage progression through higher education. Plans for an Institute of Learning and Teaching are well advanced. The sector should introduce professional standards for teaching. Further education faces possibly an even greater challenge than higher education. It has an absolutely central role to play in the realisation of a learning society. We want to create the opportunity for everyone to be able to make the most of their abilities.

The challenge for further education is twofold. It must reach those students not previously reached as set out in Helena Kennedy's report. At the same time, colleges need to raise quality and standards; resources from the CSR will help them to do this. We have already announced an extra Pounds 255 million funding for further education in 1999-2000, to provide places for an additional 150,000 students. Full details on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review for further education will be announced later in the autumn. In return we shall be looking to colleges to deliver on widening participation and raising standards.

Extra investment, especially in research, improving quality and greater accessibility, will transform further and higher education. It will lay the basis for realising the "Learning Age" through this Parliament and beyond.

Phil Willis

Funding, expansion and access

The government has recognised the symptoms of our ailing further and higher education system - acute underfunding, lack of access for under-represented students, the huge skills gap and a demoralised academic teaching force.

But the government was so obsessed with minimising the impact on the Treasury that many of the recommendations in the Dearing, Kennedy and Tomlinson reports have been ignored. Liberal Democrats stood almost alone in recognising the damage the introduction of tuition fees would do. They have not generated new income. they have created division and elitism and the climate for a two-tier system.

Liberal Democrats would have done things differently. We recognise that our further and higher institutions need adequate and sustained resources.

These must come from the three principal partners.

Employers benefit significantly from a quality further and higher education system and would be expected to contribute through a 2 per cent remissible training levy.

The taxpayer would be expected to contribute to the levels identified for higher education by the Dearing committee and for further education by the Commons education and employment select committee.

Students would also have to contribute more. We have supported the government and the NUS in transferring support from grants to income-contingent loans, but we would ring fence the Pounds 1.7 billion spent on grants into enhanced provision.

We would establish the principle that all students, part-time or full-time, be treated equally up to first-degree level. Loans would be available to all in FE or HE. All would have access to individual learning accounts with contributions from the state at least equal to the costs of tuition on approved courses up to and including first- degree level.

Access for under-represented groups including the disabled would be a priority. "Access units" recognising the extra costs of recruiting and supporting disadvantaged students would be channelled through individual learning accounts to all providers. We would make an element of the funding council grants conditional on meeting the targets.

Further education

Liberal Democrats would create a single strategic framework for commissioning education and training to undergraduate level. Money from the funding councils, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Trade and Industry, local education authorities and the European Union would be coordinated at regional level under the direction of the regional development agencies or Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. It would be their responsibility to produce a "lifelong learning action plan" in partnership with the business community, trade unions, national training organisations and community groups. Provision would then be commissioned through the University for Industry, further education colleges, schools and private-sector providers.

We would create a single regional funding body with common audit and accounting procedures, which would remove disparity of funding between different providers in the post-16 sector.

Autonomy and quality

We would expect that as a condition of receiving FEFC funding colleges would have to deliver a significant part of their teaching programme using staff under contract to that college.

FE colleges would have a new system of governance that would include representatives from the new RDA partnership, including LEAs, students and lecturers.

Damian Green

Funding, expansion and access

After the enormous expansion of higher education between 1979 and 1997 what was required was a response to Dearing that ensured proper access. Ministers have already failed the Dearing test. We would have implemented Dearing in full. The decision to abolish the maintenance grant while introducing tuition fees will lead to increasing wariness of a long-term commitment to higher education from groups most unused to it. We are already seeing a 30 per cent drop in the number of mature students applying and I am sure we will see rising drop-out rates as debts mount.

It is unclear where the government hopes to find extra 80,000 students. Certainly not from the social groups we all want to see benefiting from higher education.

Further education

The prevailing mood is one of uncertainty and disappointment that so little has been done to follow up the Kennedy report. There is also resentment at the increased bossiness of central government. Why should colleges be forced to think about reducing the number of business governors? What will be the unit funding rate for the 400,000 new students David Blunkett says he wants? If it is below the current convergence rate (as seems likely) how are colleges supposed to cope? Why are funding rates for New Deal students so far below current levels? The government is far from a coherent FE strategy.

Autonomy and quality

For universities we want to see genuine freedom so that each institution can perform the role for which it exists. Some universities regard their main role as competing on a world stage, others focus on their region, others still on their local community. To expect all these institutions to be subjected to a single rigid formula in the way they operate may prove unrealistic. It may also mean that none of them reaches its full potential.

Similarly, in further education different colleges may wish to follow a strictly community-based route, or specialise in specific areas. A Conservative government will not seek to dictate every move of every college, or micro-manage its affairs.

We will also address the reality of the sector. In some cases the line between higher and further education is blurred and it will be worth considering the implications for funding mechanisms and for individual institutions. Similarly, if "lifelong learning" is to become more than a soundbite, then the role of every institution will have to change.

Lifelong learning

Technology will increasingly allow international distance learning, and much wider access to courses. The National Grid for Learning may be all very well (or would be if anything meaningful had happened), but it may equally suffer from rapid built-in obsolesence.

Nicola Sturgeon

Funding, expansion and access

Scottish higher education faces an uncertain future. A lot of people fear that the combination of tuition fees and the abolition of the maintenance grant will deter many potential students. The so-called Scottish anomaly will act as a further disincentive for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The fear, shared by the Scottish National Party, the Association of University Teachers, students and many others is not simply that numbers will decline, but that different groups, courses and institutions could be affected disproportionately. So far, the government has failed to put in place any mechanisms to monitor the effects on, for example, women or people from low-income backgrounds.

There is also growing resentment that the government is failing to keep its side of the tuition fees bargain and increase investment in higher education. The first year of the comprehensive spending review settlement will see a 1 per cent cut in higher education spending. The provisional figures for the following two years will yield an increase only if the inflation rate falls to 2.5 per cent. This is in spite of the fact that fees will be fully onstream by the end of the CSR period. Labour is using student contributions as a substitute for public funding, not to provide the extra cash advocated by Dearing and Garrick. The result will be that, as paying students begin to think more like customers, education institutions will be less able to provide the teaching standards students demand and deserve.

The SNP has made clear its intention to abolish tuition fees immediately in an independent Scotland and as soon as resources allow in the devolved Parliament. In the meantime, we will end the discrimination against English, Welsh and Northern Irish students.

An SNP government will protect the traditional four-year honours degree.

Further education

As of mid-1999, most aspects of tertiary education will be the responsibility of the new Scottish Parliament. We will establish a parliamentary education committee, with a subcommittee responsible for tertiary education and research. The Scottish Higher and Further Education Funding Councils will operate as buffer bodies to protect the institutions from direct political interference and control, and ensure adequate funding.

Research

We will look at the possibility of establishing a Scottish Research Council that would coordinate the research activities that are the responsibility of various Scottish Office departments. The priority is to ensure a healthy and even spread of research funding.

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