The Conservative Political Centre's policy document on higher education shows just how far higher education policy is becoming a matter of consensus. Because of this it may not offer politicians much mileage and may not make much noise. It would however be all the more foolish to disregard it on that account.
Vague commitments about a fairer deal for students and maintaining standards in higher education can easily be slipped into the fine print of manifestos after all the stirring stuff about under-fives and schools and training. This would be enough to provide a remit for rapid legislation hard on the heels of an election - whoever wins. We are beginning to see what such legislation might contain.
The ugly facts that underlie this consensus are the urgent need for more and better advanced education and training and the huge costs. David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, speaking in Brighton this week,, put the cost of the improvements being clled for in post 16 education at Pounds 10billion. No government will promise to provide it.
Faced with this, two main policy recommendations now have bipartisan support: credit accumulation and transfer along the lines so carefully and fully adumbrated by David Robertson in Choosing to Change and the reform of the student loans system along lines worked out by the London School of Economics group.
On the vexed question of student contributions there are characteristic differences but little comfort for students. On the Labour side there is disagreement. As we reported last week, those who believe equity demands that full-time students should bear some part of tuition costs are being sat on in the interests of political advantage. Top-up fees have been excoriated. But the party's Learning Bank plan assumes contributions from students. As yet Labour's intentions are hard to analyse in detail as no policy document has yet emerged. The CPC document gives a clear view of the way Conservative thinking is moving. The argument is coherent and clever. There should be no national tuition charge but universities are free to charge if they want and to keep the proceeds if they do. Meanwhile, the state should make its savings by cutting maintenance and should keep control of the universities through its subsidies for tuition. This scheme has two huge drawbacks. In terms of social justice axing all maintenance grants would be highly regressive, hitting only the poorest. Affluent families do not qualify for maintenance grants anyway.
The other drawback will exercise higher education more than the outside world: the proposals for a national credit database and a mobile voucher for tuition fees pose a major threat to the sense of coherence and community which still characterises United Kingdom universities. This, coupled with the license to charge top-up fees, promises supermarket higher education for the masses and an elite tier for the rich or very clever. Persuading the public of the dangers of such a scheme may prove as hard as defending city-centre shopping. This is where the consensus breaks down and the argument will be.