Phil Baty reports from the Lib Dems conference, where hopes are high
The promise of free higher education has been hailed as the single "most powerful weapon" of a future election campaign by the Liberal Democrats - a policy that party insiders believe could win them dozens of seats.
John Howson, the Lib Dems' senior education adviser, told The Times Higher at the party's annual conference in Bournemouth this week that 35 seats could be won in a general election, expected next year, as a result of the party's popularity with students.
Phil Willis, the party's education spokesman, revealed that private polling for next week's high-profile by-election in Hartlepool shows that even in a non-university town, concern over the Government's plans to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year is a burning issue with voters.
Professor Howson, who wrote the blueprint for the party's education policy with his 2002 report, No Child Left Behind , is the party's prospective parliamentary candidate for Reading East. He said that the Liberal Democrats were in a position to exploit the mistrust felt towards the Government over its decision to abandon its 2001 manifesto pledge not to introduce top-up fees.
"Top-up fees are in the same box as the Iraq War - it is a question of whether people can trust the Government," he said. "They are the sort of things that move voters."
He said that the party was the first choice among students. "The Unite student living poll put us at 37 per cent, and a recent poll in The Times Higher , said our support among students was 47 per cent - it is amazing," Professor Howson said.
"There are 35 constituencies around the country where the student vote could make the difference. If I was Tony Blair, I would not call an election on May 5, as it is term time and students will be concentrated in their university towns."
He said that seats in Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Durham could be at risk, as well as his own would-be constituency of Reading East.
In an interview with The Times Higher , Mr Willis echoed Professor Howson.
"One thing that every 18 to 25-year-old knows about in political terms is tuition fees," he said.
"And 2 million students have left university since fees were introduced and it will be an issue on which they will vote. A 5 to 10 per cent increase in the proportion of under-25s who come out and vote would make a massive difference."
Under the Lib Dems' plans - endorsed by conference delegates this week - tuition fees, and the planned top-up fees of up to £3,000 to be introduced from 2006, would be scrapped.
The party said it would keep investment in higher education in line with current government spending plans by supplying £1.2 billion a year from a 50 per cent income tax rate for those earning above £100,000 a year.
David Rendel, the Lib Dem's higher education spokesman, said during the party's education debate that its position on fees was the party's "most powerful weapon" for the coming general election.
"To us, education is about much more than wealth creation," he said. "If our society is to be a great society, education should be free to all citizens and paid for by all."