CONSERVATIVES are set to attack the government for its planned abolition of student maintenance grants when legislation on higher education funding is introduced in the Commons next session.
The move will accompany a general assault on the government's handling of the Dearing report since it was published in July.
Stephen Dorrell, shadow secretary of state for education and employment, told a fringe meeting and a question and answer session at the Conservative conference in Blackpool this week that the Conservatives would definitely oppose the government. "We will certainly oppose this departure from Dearing," Mr Dorrell said.
The government response when education secretary David Blunkett rejected some of Dearing's funding proposals on the day when the report was published was a Treasury-led "dog's breakfast", he added.
"Blunkett has been told by the Treasury to cut spending on student maintenance despite Dearing's recommendation to the contrary. He has introduced the principle of student contributions to tuition costs without giving either students or the universities the assurance that the income generated will be available to universities.
"This is even worse than a poll tax on students. Even the poll tax did not fall more heavily on those with low incomes. The students from the poorest homes will be around Pounds 2,000 a year worse off as a result of the abolition of maintenance grants."
Mr Dorrell argued that the government's mishandling was a consequence of haste. "In their place I would not have rushed into Dearing. They would have been better advised to have taken their time, but the Treasury was determined to get what money was being raised out of students."
He noted Sir Ron Dearing's statement that he and his inquiry had originally expected to recommend the abolition of the maintenance grant, but that "We all changed and developed our views: we did not end up where we started".
Mr Dorrell said: "That makes it all the more regrettable that Mr Blair and his colleagues have not allowed themselves the time to go through this process."
Mr Dorrell accused the government of hypocrisy. He told the conference: "I do not remember any Labour candidate at the general election going round the universities promising to abolish the maintenance grant."
While the Conservatives have roundly criticised the government on its plans for higher education, Mr Dorrell said it would be at least another two years before the party put forward its own fully developed higher and further education policies. He said: "It would be a mistake coming forward with a detailed package of proposals without having talked to all the people relevant in the field."