Tories 'have got numbers wrong'

June 13, 2003

Nearly 80,000 student places would have to be slashed to cover a multimillion pound deficit under Conservative Party plans for funding higher education, according to a new economic analysis, writes Phil Baty.

A paper published on Thursday by Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, also warns that the Tory plan to scrap tuition fees for all new students would leave the university sector with an accumulated deficit of £1.6 billion after five years.

To keep funding per student at constant levels over a five-year period, student numbers would have to be cut by 79,000 places in that time, Professor Barr says.

"The numbers in the Tory proposals do not stand up. And the policy implications - fortress middle England - hark back to an earlier era. In today's terms, they put economic performance at risk and are also deeply regressive."

The Tories announced last month that they could afford to abolish fees by scrapping the government's plans to increase participation among under-30s to 50 per cent by 2010. Participation rates for 18 to 30-year-olds would, instead, remain at or around current levels of 44 per cent.

But Professor Barr's analysis concludes that unless the Tories accept a dramatic reduction in funding per student - and a consequent decline in quality - their cuts would reduce participation to about 38 per cent, or 79,000 fewer students than now. But because there would be no expansion up to 2010 under the Tories, Professor Barr estimates that more than 180,000 places would be lost by the end of the decade.

Professor Barr firmly supports the government's higher education white paper plans to introduce differential top-up tuition fees, with charges deferred until after graduation. He has long argued for differential fees and is credited with helping to persuade the government likewise.

He also rejects the Liberal Democrat plans to raise the top rate of income tax to 50p in the pound to fund the abolition of tuition fees.

He says that higher tax revenue would be better spent on nursery education.

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