Conservative plans to scrap student tuition fees and halt university expansion are wrong, while the government's top-up fees policy is a step in the right direction, according to the UK's leading free-market think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute.
Institute director Eamonn Butler said that the Conservative proposals ran counter to everything the party stood for in terms of the free market and reducing state interference in society.
The Tories propose to abolish the Labour government's 50 per cent higher education participation target, which would reduce the number of degree courses and possibly, over time, reduce the number of universities.
The party claimed this would release sufficient money, which would otherwise have been swallowed by expansion, to fund universities properly without the need for undergraduate tuition fees. Scrapping fees and top-up fees, which are due to be introduced in 2006, would increase universities'
reliance on the state for funding.
Dr Butler dismissed the economics of the Conservative policy, warning that demand for degree places would continue to rise and that a future Tory government could be left to fill a hole in higher education funding in the absence of tuition fees. But he agreed that it was a logical policy in terms of winning votes.
He said: "They are strangely wrong on this. It is against traditional Tory thinking. It is disappointing.
"What we need in higher education is a proper market. So I welcome top-up fees. I think the government's proposals are the right and sensible move."
The Conservative policy, introduced by party leader Iain Duncan Smith in May this year, has been opposed by a number of Tory MPs and peers who say the party is wrong to abandon fees.
But the party leadership is bullish. A spokeswoman pointed to a surge in support from younger voters, including students, as proof of the popularity of the no-fees policy. She said some 7,000 young people had joined the party's youth wing, Conservative Future, over the past two months.
The spokeswoman said shadow education secretary Damian Green was not prepared to comment on the views of individual think-tanks and that the party was not going to change its policy because of a view expressed from within one think-tank.
She said: "Of course we are going to get dissenters airing their views.
But, in fact, most of our MPs agree with the policy. If anything, it is the most popular policy we have."
Members of the shadow cabinet, including Mr Green, plan to tour autumn freshers' fairs in a bid to sell the party's no-tuition-fees policy to students.