The Conservative Party will abolish all university tuition fees and abandon the government's 50 per cent participation target if it wins the next general election, it was confirmed this week.
In an interview with The Times Higher ahead of a long-awaited announcement on the Tories' higher education policy, Chris Grayling, the shadow higher education minister, confirmed that the Tories' opposition to fees and university expansion would remain unchanged in party leader Michael Howard's new vision for higher education, expected in weeks.
He also said that the party would announce plans to bring more funding to the sector. Mr Grayling refused to confirm whether the party would resurrect its 2001 manifesto plans to fund universities through American-style endowment, paid for by an estimated £38 billion windfall tax on proceeds from the sale of digital television licences.
He said: "We have said since January that we would replace all the fees - the top-up fees and the existing tuition fees. And we reject totally the government's 50 per cent target."
Mr Grayling would not be drawn on the party's funding plans but said: "We recognise the issue of underfunding, and it has been very much on our minds during the development of our policy. I hope universities will feel at the end of it that the Conservative Party is not failing to recognise the needs that they have."
In the House of Lords this week, Government education spokeswoman Baroness Ashton said she "noted" the Tories' plans to set up endowments: "I understand that £38 billion would be required to be invested in order to raise the necessary money."
Mr Grayling revealed results from a survey of vice-chancellors that he said proved that the Government's top-up fees policy was failing.
Of 35 vice-chancellors who responded to the Conservatives' poll, none intended to charge any less than the maximum £3,000 top-up fee. Some 62 per cent said they would certainly not discount fees, and the others declined to reveal their plans until the Higher Education Bill had become law.
Half of respondents said they would compete with rivals on the size of bursaries offered, not on the basis of fees, and 26 per cent said they would consider other benefits, such as enhanced facilities and accommodation.
"The whole premise of the Government's policy to create a market though variable fees seems to be falling about their ears," Mr Grayling said.
"What we're getting is a higher education sector that will charge everybody £3,000, and there will be no differentiation between institutions."
The Conservatives are expected to mount a separate attack on the Government's expansion policies in the lead-up to the announcement of their policy, expected before the Parliamentary recess on July 22.
The Times Higher understands that an as yet unpublished part of the party's vice-chancellors' survey will reveal high levels of concern about the lack of basic maths and literacy skills among undergraduates.
Mr Howard is expected to use the findings to highlight what the party believes is the admission of underqualified students to higher education, justifying Conservative plans to freeze expansion.
Mr Grayling said: "There are increasing signs of students struggling in the jobs market. Research based on 1995 participation rates has shown that ten years after graduating, 11 per cent of graduates have never been in a graduate job. When you start to get up to 50 per cent participation, what are the consequences going to be?"
- Students will graduate in 2010 with a total debt of £14 billion under the Government's top-up fees plans, according to the Liberal Democrats, who also oppose tuition fees.