Tory policy is 'stupid', says party defector

January 21, 2005

Robert Jackson, the Wantage MP who defected from the Tories to Labour, has accused his former party of "ignorance and stupidity" over its higher education policies.

Mr Jackson predicted that opposition to tuition fees would cost the Conservatives votes and that if the party's policies were adopted, it would hit funding, prompting a crash in student numbers.

Alongside doubts over Tory policies on European and public spending and taxation, the issue was key in persuading the former education minister to switch allegiances.

Mr Jackson, who as a junior fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, was the The Times Higher 's first columnist in its inaugural edition of October 15, 1971, has long supported fees and tried to persuade Tory MPs to back them.

He said his attempts had failed not just because opposition to fees presented an opportunity to score political points against the Government but because of widespread lack of understanding.

Mr Jackson said: "It is worse than opportunism - it's ignorance and stupidity. The number of colleagues who understand my arguments could be counted on the fingers of a single hand.

"That's part of the general trend of the party not being up to date with the modern world."

Mr Jackson said he had previously received letters of support from "thinking Conservatives" outside Parliament praising his attempts to persuade his party to back fees.

He added: "I think it will cost votes from people who think the (Conservative) party is abandoning its market principles."

Mr Jackson said that if the UK was to compete in a global knowledge economy, it was essential to fund an expansion of higher education along US lines, producing a financially independent system that encompassed world-class research and high-level vocational training. "You need thriving, confident, outward-looking universities and for that you need a decent financial base," he said.

"The Conservative Party has no understanding of the vocational aspects of HE. The attitude is that golf course management does not have a place in the university.

"At the same time, I do not think there is any understanding of the way academic research relates to the modern economy."

Mr Jackson said that the Conservative's no-fees policy, confirmed this week as part of its election manifesto, could lead to a loss of 155,000 student places by the end of the decade.

He said that his stance, which led him to defy the Tory whip to vote with the Government on tuition fees last year, had been largely ignored by colleagues.

"Within the Conservative Party, my heresy on HE was seen as a sort of funny little deviation - 'It must be because he wants to become a vice-chancellor'," Mr Jackson said.

steve.farrar@thes.co.uk

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