Two Davids divided on tuition money

November 11, 2005

Conservative Party leadership contenders David Davis and David Cameron go head-to-head, with clear differences emerging in their views on top-up fees and the funding of higher education

David Davis is Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Haltemprice and Howden

There are some in the Conservative Party who say that we must accept certain aspects of the Gordon Brown/Tony Blair settlement. Tuition fees, they argue, are a case in point. These people claim the fees are a market solution of which the Conservative Party should be proud. As a result, they suggest, a modern Conservative Party should embrace them.

This argument could not be more wrong.

Tuition fees are not a market solution at all. They are rigid and inflexible - a straightforward tax on learning. They deter those from poor backgrounds from entering higher education. Those who argue in favour of them are really arguing in favour of discriminating against the poorest young people in our society.

I must admit that I start with an outstanding prejudice on this subject. As a young man with just an ordinary start in life, I was able to move up by making the most of the opportunities afforded me. In fact, everything I have today I owe to my education.

But if I had been born today I probably wouldn't have achieved half of what I have. Tuition fees would have stopped me from going to university because of the prospect of such huge debts. As a result, I would have achieved no degree, no business career and presumably no political career either.

That political career has been driven by a desire to give every young person the same opportunities I had in life. It is therefore inconceivable for me to reverse the party's position on tuition fees.

Fees will take us back to the time when a university education was largely a middle-class privilege. We should be moving in the opposite direction, opening up universities to people from all backgrounds.

In the 1970s, more than 70 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge universities was from the state sector. That then fell to less than 50 per cent, before recovering to some extent in recent years. The next Conservative Government should not put new obstacles in the way of aspiring university entrants by accepting the Blair settlement on tuition fees.

I want every young person to have the chance to go to university if they can get something out of it. But it shouldn't appear to be compulsory. I would therefore scrap the arbitrary 50 per cent target for the number of young people going to university. The headlong expansion of the sector needs to stop if we are going to fund our universities properly.

Already, we see dropout rates rising, reaching more than 15 per cent in some parts of England and Wales and rising even higher in Scotland.

Meanwhile, there is increasing evidence that too many degrees provide no benefit to those who obtain them or to the wider economy.

We have ever more graduates but continuing shortages in skills such as engineering. Recent research from the Higher Education Statistics Agency found that about two in every five graduates end up in jobs for which they are overqualified.

Yet Britain continues to lag far behind other countries when it comes to vocational education. Just 28 per cent of young people in the UK are qualified to apprentice, skilled craft or technician level, compared with 51 per cent in France and 65 per cent in Germany.

Of the Government's four New Deal options, the education and training one is the least successful. Only 31 per cent of clients on this option, which is by far the most popular of the four, achieve a qualification and only 26 per cent find a job.

So it's not all about university. We must ensure there is a space for everyone who can benefit from university, but a Conservative programme for education must also have a focus on vocational skills at its heart.

The existing gap in university funding is entirely of Brown's own making through his headlong rush towards his 50 per cent target. That he has turned to a policy to bridge it that hits the less well-off the most brings shame on this Government. The Conservative Party must have no part of it.

David Cameron is Shadow Education Spokesman and MP for Witney

In my campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party, I've argued that the three principal tests of leadership are conviction, judgment and a clear direction. I think people would expect the Conservative Party, having lost the last general election, to be at the beginning of a policy-making process, not at the end of it. We need to identify the big challenges facing our country, and then develop a long-term strategy for tackling them. We should listen to the views of those with the greatest knowledge and expertise, and engage with a wide range of people and organisations - in particular the academic community - who can make a creative contribution.

These principles apply with particular force in the field of higher education. My conviction is that a strong and well-funded sector is vitally important to ensure that Britain remains an international leader.

University departments and their outputs, both in research and in the graduates they produce, must continue to be world class. Making our economy competitive so we create good jobs and raise living standards is one of the biggest challenges we face - and higher education must play a central role in any serious strategy for economic competitiveness.

I also believe in the benefit of education for its own sake. Politicians don't talk enough about happiness - and a love of learning is one way to achieve a love of life.

The challenge for higher education is threefold. First, how can universities continue to produce graduates of the highest quality while dealing with the demands of expansion? Second, how can we ensure we foster an independent and vibrant sector that can compete with the best in the world? And third, how can we ensure that this country attracts and retains academics of the highest standing?

Graduates leaving our universities today, while gaining skills that equip them to compete effectively in the global employment market, face tougher competition all the time from the millions of graduates from elsewhere in the world - not just from the Americas but increasingly from Asia too. We need to ensure that our graduates are differentiated from the rest by helping them to reach university ready and able to learn to the highest possible standards, and by offering them the best advice on courses and opportunities. This is also vital to tackle the significant dropout rate we have in this country.

The best universities in the world are those that are able to make their own decisions and set their own paths to success. The Government argues that the state still provides the lion's share of funding for universities, and interprets this as a licence for meddling. Education is there to offer opportunities to everyone in society, but this should never mean using our universities as tools of social engineering. So I believe we must foster a revitalised culture of philanthropy to support students in the independent centres of learning that our universities should and must remain.

I accept that philanthropy is not, on its own, enough - and that world-class universities cannot be provided on the cheap. The problem is that we cannot agree on how universities should be funded and where the burden of that funding should fall.

To make our economy competitive, we need to be prepared to remove burdens on the state, and that's why I've made clear that in higher education some form of co-payment is almost certainly the correct way forward. So I have said that the Conservative Party's position on university funding needs to change. Our 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 will not be viable in 2010.

Finally, there's no point having the best university facilities in the world if we don't have the best academics in the world. So universities need to be free to set their own pay and conditions, which will enable them to retain and attract the best talents.

This is a clear direction for higher education in this country: independent institutions, securely funded, with the freedom to attract and retain the world's best talent. We must now work closely with the sector to understand the best ways in which to meet these long-term objectives.

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