Well-funded universities will be a priority under a Tory government, David Cameron declared this week in his first speech as Conservative Party leader, writes Paul Hill.
Mr Cameron, the former Shadow Education Secretary, said universities had to be funded properly if Britain were to be competitive economically and that his party had to say where the money would come from.
"Today, there are nearly three quarters of a million eight-year-olds," Mr Cameron said after his victory was announced.
"At the end of what I hope will be the first term of a Conservative government, they will be 18.
"I want them to have well-paid jobs and good careers. And that means a full-bodied economic policy not just a tax policy. It means well-funded universities and saying how we'll pay for them."
Mr Cameron's election as party leader by a margin of two votes to one against David Davis, Shadow Home Secretary, signals a likely policy U-turn on university tuition fees. Mr Cameron has advocated "some form of co-payment" between the individual student and the State to cover the cost of tuition, while his rival, Mr Davis, advocated abolition of fees.
In an article for The Times Higher (November 11), published during the leadership campaign, Mr Cameron wrote: "Our (anti-fees) policy at the last election was understandable given the anger at Labour's clear breach of its manifesto promise not to introduce top-up fees, but it would not be viable in the world of 2010."
But in the article, Mr Cameron also echoed his party's election manifesto pledge to encourage endowments and charitable donations to universities with a call to "foster a culture of philanthropy".
In a direct pitch for the academic vote, Mr Cameron added: "Universities need to be set free to set their own pay and conditions, which in turn will enable them to retain the best talents."
Mr Cameron's advance to the leadership will prompt a reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet and the appointment of a new education spokesman.
Speculation was rife that the former transport spokesman, Alan Duncan, would be given the job.
But Mr Cameron's victory and the prospect of a policy U-turn on fees was greeted with alarm by the National Union of Students.
Julian Nicholds, the NUS vice-president for education, said: "In recent correspondence with the NUS, Mr Cameron has admitted that a Conservative government would not pursue continued opposition to variable fees.
"We are extremely concerned that access to education will be limited under a Tory government and would urge all parties to rethink their stance on the future of education."