Alan Thomson reports from the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool.
Different levels of university tuition fees are just one of the proposals that may emerge from Tim Boswell's further and higher education policy working group.
Mr Boswell, a former education minister, said that he was prepared to consider some radical solutions to the problems in post-16 education. He hinted that among these may be a sort of sliding scale of fees. All are currently limited to Pounds 1,025 a year.
Mr Boswell said: "Universities may not be charging what they would like to at a time when some may wish to do so. This is bound to be an area we will look at.
"I cannot imagine institutions wanting to do that if disadvantaged students are being put off by the financial arrangements."
Mr Boswell is keen to investigate the ramifications of adopting this policy in a system where, if government targets are met, half of all people under 30 will have been through higher education. As the minister responsible for universities and colleges after the last Conservative government expanded higher education participation for school-leavers to 30 per cent, Mr Boswell admits there is no going back on expansion.
He said: "It is not about pulling up the drawbridge. But if you say you want 50 per cent participation you do, in effect, need a more diverse sector.
"This may come through the regional structures, while some universities may be operating at national and international level doing research. It seems inevitable, however, that if you are going to have 50 per cent participation you are going to alter the character of the experience."
Student financing will be key. Mr Boswell said that students are worried about the size of loans despite repayments being contingent on income. He was unable to suggest how to alleviate such concern but said that it would be examined by the working group.
Mr Boswell wants to look at how means-testing for fees and loans could be disconnected from parental income. "It is a question of independent status. Does it make sense that an 18 or 20-year-old's tuition fees will be affected by their parents' income?"
University funding is another area of concern. The Conservatives believe that every penny of tuition fees should have gone to universities as net additional income. They think that the sector was stitched up by the government because, although insitutions do keep all of the tuition fee, adjustments have been made centrally to divert part of the equivalent fee income into further education and, perhaps, elsewhere.
Mr Boswell said: "We have done a wonderful job of running universities on the cheap in Britain. But there is growing concern in the Russell group that they may be slipping behind institutions in other countries, especially the United States. This is not only in research but also teaching."
The working group has perhaps six months to complete its work. Mr Boswell has promised a blitz of parliamentary questions as part of the group's work.
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