White paper is 'Tory-friendly'

February 7, 2003

The Conservative Party should back the government's plans for higher education and end the agony of opposition policy for opposition's sake, a former Tory minister said this week.

Robert Jackson, who as education minister from 1987 to 1990 carried out research into the feasibility of top-up fees, fired a broadside at Conservative leaders who are rewriting higher education policy in an attempt to put clear water between the party and government aims as laid out in the white paper a fortnight ago.

Mr Jackson said that the government's higher education white paper, which set out plans to allow universities to charge different levels of fees up to £3,000 a year, sat comfortably with Tory free-market principles.

Mr Jackson, one of three Conservative MPs on the education and skills select committee, said he would support the government's higher education policy during the committee's forthcoming inquiry into the white paper proposals. Many Labour Party members of the committee have misgivings about the white paper.

Mr Jackson said: "The government is doing something firmly within the parameters of Conservative Party philosophy and I think it would be ridiculous for Conservatives to end up taking a more leftwing position than the government."

The news that Mr Jackson and like-minded Tories may support the white paper will come as cold comfort to the government, which faces a rebellion by Labour backbenchers over impending top-up fee legislation.

But shadow education secretary Damian Green said that there were conflicting Conservative principles at stake and that Mr Jackson did not speak for the rest of the party in opting for a market solution in higher education.

Mr Green said: "I am not remotely convinced by the argument that all we have to look at is the market solution. There is another respectable Tory principle of opportunity for all."

Mr Green had earlier told The THES that, while he was not opposed to higher tuition fees and measures to allow universities more freedom from state control, he was worried by the levels of debt that students would accumulate under a top-up fees system.

The party has set up an independent education commission to examine policy and practice in schools, colleges and universities. It is headed by Sir Robert Balchin, vice-chairman of governors of Goldsmiths College, London.

The Conservatives hope to finalise their higher education policy later this year.

Higher education minister Margaret Hodge will be the first to give evidence to the select committee's white paper inquiry on Tuesday. Education secretary Charles Clarke will be last. He is due before the committee in early March.

* In a speech to the annual dinner of the Conservative's Bow Group on Monday, party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that the government's 50 per cent higher education participation target amounted to social engineering in the name of egalitarianism, which would force people into university whether or not they stood to benefit academically.

WHAT SELECT COMMITTEE MEMBERS WILL ASK HODGE AND CLARKE

Jonathan Shaw, Labour MP for Chatham and Aylesford : "One of my concerns is about the differing status between universities that the white paper implies. I think this is an important part of the widening-access debate."

Meg Munn, Labour MP for SheffieldHeeley : "I am a rare breed, being broadly supportive of the white paper. But the important thing for me is to get a sense of the thinking behind the whole white-paper package."

Jeff Ennis, Labour MP for Barnsley East and Mexborough : "There are many good things in the white paper. My questions will be about ensuring an appropriate access strategy and whether the maintenance allowance is pitched right."

Valerie Davey, Labour MP for Bristol West : "I will ask for the financial evidence to be set alongside the options the government considered. I am looking to better understand the analysis that led government to decide that this is the best way forward."

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