The Conservatives have promised to liberate universities from government controls while increasing access for bright but poor students. But the party's education spokeswoman Theresa May added that government plans for university expansion may be too ambitious.
Ms May told the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth: "Our universities need to be set free from government controls that mean they find it ever more difficult to compete on the world stage.
"Our young people deserve the best. But with funding per student falling, Labour certain to introduce top-up fees, and universities finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain staff, standards are under threat as never before. Access for students from less well-off families is under threat from Labour, too.
"We owe it to our young people to stem the tide. That is why we will progressively endow universities. We will invest the proceeds from the sale of government assets, such as the radio spectrum, in our universities, setting them free of excessive bureaucratic control and interference and ensuring their academic freedom. Endowed universities would be free to recover their global pre-eminence and build a world role."
Sir Howard Newby, president of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, gave the endowment plans a cautious welcome. At a fringe meeting, he said: "Universities are increasingly instruments of government policy and I think anything that would restore autonomy to universities would be welcome."
On access, Ms May told The THES: "The abolition of the maintenance grant has had the most effect on students from poorer backgrounds and on where they go to university. They are going to the local university, not because it is right for them, but because they can stay at home and it will be cheaper.
"We want students to look for the university and the course that suits them. We are working on a student-support package that will allow all who can benefit to go to university.
"We oppose top-up fees. Universities are only looking at top-up fees because of their financial situation. By endowing universities, we would give them greater certainty over their funding."
Ms May attacked government plans to expand higher education by setting target participation rates. She told a fringe meeting: "It's not right for everyone to go to university. Fifty per cent of young people will go to university under Labour's plans. I have a strong feeling that universities will be under pressure to take students that they might not otherwise have accepted."
Ms May also used her address to pledge to relax government controls on further education colleges if the Conservatives won power at the next election. And, under the Conservatives, more teacher training would take place in the classroom rather than in universities and colleges, she said.
Paul Bristow, who speaks on universities for the party's youth section, Conservative Future, called on the Conservatives to become the party of access.
He said: "Top-up fees would hurt those who come from poorer backgrounds, who have the intelligence to go to university but not the money." Mr Bristow also called on the party to rule out differential tuition fees in its election manifesto.
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