Tories: it's full steam ahead

October 12, 2001

Conservatives must look forward not back to regain voter support, according to shadow higher education minister Alistair Burt, writes Alan Thomson.

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool this week, Mr Burt said that the public's perception of the party was that it sought to turn back the clock in terms of policy to some golden age. He said this would not be the case under Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Burt, who addressed a Universities UK fringe meeting, was responding to complaints that it had been a mistake to award university status to polytechnics in 1992. As parliamentary private secretary to former education secretary Kenneth Baker, Mr Burt was closely involved with the moves in the late 1980s by the then Conservative government to allow polytechnics to become universities.

UUK president Roderick Floud said: "What is the difference between an institution that educates lawyers, accountants, doctors... and one that educates businessmen, artists and designers? Really, are they any different? They are all vocational. They all incorporate... a high level of intellectual achievement."

Conservative education policy is under review. Shadow education secretary Damian Green, a surprising appointment given that he is on the left of the party and supported Michael Portillo and then Mr Clarke in the leadership contest, is heading the review and has stressed that it will be radical and relatively non-ideological.

But Mr Green and Mr Burt, who will be focussing on higher and further education while Mr Green grapples with schools, have said that it is likely that whatever university funding and student support proposals they make will be underpinned by the need to allow universities greater freedom from central government control.

Speaking to The THES , Mr Green said that while the policy of endowing universities - which was in the party's election manifesto - was an attractive proposal, it had not registered with voters during the election campaign. Under the plan, universities would receive one-off sums of perhaps £1 billion and thereafter generate their own income for teaching.

He said: "The underlying principle that universities should... run themselves is something we will seek to develop. Less interference from the centre in teaching and research will mean that, over time, universities and colleges will perform better in terms of quality."

Student funding and academic pay will be addressed in the review.

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