'Co-payment' system is likely to remain, reports Paul Hill from the party conference
A Conservative U-turn on tuition fees and the expansion of higher education looks likely despite the wrangling over the leadership that overshadowed policy discussion at this week's party conference.
In an interview with The Times Higher in Blackpool, Stephen O'Brien, the party's Higher Education Spokesman, hinted that it was "difficult to envisage" the Tories advocating anything other than a "co-payment" system in future - with students and the state contributing to the cost of a degree. The Tories currently oppose tuition fees.
As The Times Higher has reported in recent months, party insiders admit privately that the policy of commercial-rate loans rather than tuition fees "hit a brick wall" with voters at the general election. But Mr O'Brien said it was "premature" to give details of a new policy so far ahead of the next election and while the Tories were choosing a new leader.
He also poured scorn on Labour's target of sending 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010, and he hinted that the Tories would favour expansion of student places in future.
At the general election, the party proposed creating "super colleges" as an alternative to higher education for young people, offering a mix of academic and vocational qualifications.
But Mr O'Brien, who has endorsed Liam Fox rather than his Shadow Cabinet boss David Cameron for the party leadership, said: "In order to have excellent universities that can take on all-comers on a global basis, and to offer tremendous opportunities to all those who want to be undergraduate students, as well as to have excellence in research, it's difficult to envisage - given where we will be in four years' time - a system that doesn't include a system of co-payment."
On the expansion of student places, Mr O'Brien added that "capacity had to be built to meet demand" and stressed the need to increase demand for higher education places by improving the performance of secondary schools.
"If one starts from the idea that you either have to limit capacity or put in a quota, you are talking about restraining some young people from having an opportunity," he said.
A voucher system should be introduced for post-16 education to encourage young people to "invest" in their own learning, a senior academic told conference.
Speaking at a fringe meeting organised by the Association of Colleges in Blackpool, Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said voucher schemes had been "trialled at the wrong end of education - the nursery phase".
He said vouchers had clear benefits in the "non-compulsory phase" of education. "They would have the great advantage of young people really being able to choose the path that suited them best through schools, colleges in the further education sector and employment training," he said.