Phil Baty reports from the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth.
A Conservative government would move to abolish all tuition fees in its first week in office, Tim Collins, Shadow Education Secretary, told his party conference this week.
The Tories were forced to backtrack on Mr Collins' original claim that fees would actually be "scrapped" within a week. Chris Grayling, the party's higher education spokesman, acknowledged that this would require legislation, but said that the process would be set in train as soon as a new government took office.
Mr Grayling confirmed that universities would not be denied their fee income from the autumn following a Conservative win at the 2005 election.
In a rousing conference speech that earned a standing ovation, Mr Collins highlighted the vote-winning potential of the party's pledge to scrap all tuition fees.
At one stage in his pre-speech "forum" discussion, he even presented Tories as the "anti-establishment" choice for students, illustrated through the growth of the party's youth wing, Conservative Future, on campuses.
But he accepted that it was an "uncomfortable truth" that graduates would still have to pay for their higher education under Tory plans to charge students commercial interest rates on loans.
Mr Collins added in an interview with The Times Higher that a Conservative government would be "happy" to abolish A levels to restore rigorous standards and stretch the most able students.
Speaking on the eve of his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, Mr Collins said that it had to be recognised that the prestigious university entrance exam that Margaret Thatcher famously dubbed the "gold standard" had become "at best a silver standard" that was no longer worth fighting for.
"I'm not hung up about whether you call something an A level," he said.
"I'd be happy to have something different as long as it was rigorous and stretched the most able."
Mr Collins confirmed that he was ready to embrace reforms to the post-14 curriculum to be outlined by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools. Mr Tomlinson is expected to moot the gradual replacement of GCSEs and A levels with an overarching diploma that encompasses vocational and academic courses and compulsory key skills tests.
Mr Collins said he was keen to reach consensus over the 14-to-19 reforms with Government ministers to ensure that any change of administration did not throw the system into further disarray after so many years of tinkering.
He said he was "very comfortable" with the thrust of Tomlinson's agenda.
"It must be desirable to reduce coursework, which, let's just say, is not always done by the pupil. It must be desirable to create sensible vocational pathways, to increase participation beyond 16, to improve the credibility of exams and to stretch the most able students - there are so many grade As at A level."
But there was immediate disagreement with his comments. One senior backbencher warned that scrapping A levels would be "catastrophic". Nick Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis and one of only two Conservative MPs who sit on the House of Commons Education Select Committee, said: "It is a mistake to support Tomlinson, and we will rue the day we did."
Mr Gibb said the party was failing to engage properly in the fundamental issues in education - the poor state of state primary and secondary schools and poor teaching quality.
Mr Gibb said: "Tomlinson is not addressing real issues. It is like trying to change the temperature of a room by tinkering with the thermometer."