VOTERS want to see universities expand after the general election. But academics do not. The views of voters in a poll conducted for the THES by MORI clashed on two key issues with those of academics canvassed by telephone two weeks ago by ICMResearch.
Over half of voters want the number of students at university to increase, but three-fifths of academics are opposed to any further expansion. Expansion was abandoned in 1993 because of the cost. Evidence to the Dearing committee suggests that the Conservatives are against growth, but Labour has promised more places.
MORI found the public supported the concentration of research in a small group of universities, a policy that the ICM poll found to be very unpopular with academics.
The MORI poll, conducted face-to-face between March 21 and 24, covered 1,932 members of the public aged 18 or over.
MORI found that higher education - defined for the public as "universities" - is an important issue for voters. Fifty-eight per cent said it would be important in determining which party to vote for.
But the age group least likely to see higher education as significant is the one - 19 to 24-year-olds - likeliest to be directly involved. Only half said it would be important. This age group also had the lowest intention to vote for any of the three main parties. This tallies with student apathy found by THES reporters last week.
Voters who backed expansion were asked who should pay the extra costs. Over two-thirds want the Government to contribute through tax revenue. But nearly half support an employers' contribution. Graduate contributions are considerably less popular, backed by only 13 per cent.
David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, welcomed backing for employer contributions: "Three groups benefit from higher education. Society as a whole, which is why there should be extra funding from government. Employers, as they acknowledge, benefit which is why they should be contributing. And students. Backing for student repayment is low, but I think that if you offer people the choice between a wholly-funded elite system and one which needs repayments but provides a lot more people with chances, they'll make the sacrifice."
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said: "These results reinforce the continuing strong demand for higher education. No political party has been prepared to guarantee finance for expansion from public funding which is why we need a new funding system. We believe the loans system we've proposed is equitable and fair."
Asking parents how much they would contribute to their childrens' higher education produced results similar to a 1991 poll for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. Twenty-two per cent said they would pay nothing, compared to 25 per cent six years ago.
Both this year's polls found strong support for all students learning core skills such as communications and numeracy.