Will you stand for Blair's bloody-mindedness?

May 16, 2003

The Conservatives would ditch the dogma and deliver a fair deal for students and universities, insists Damian Green

A future Conservative government's pledge to scrap Labour's tuition fees and get rid of Labour's 50 per cent participation target would give students and universities a fair deal.

Labour's plans for higher education are the worst of all possible worlds. Having failed to widen participation in higher education, it is desperate to interfere in university admissions. It will cost more than £700 million to hit the government's 50 per cent participation target and to implement its meddling initiatives, such as the access regulator.

Universities are angry with the government for trampling over their independence. To compound this misery, the government wants to charge students and their families to help it to do so.

The government's 50 per cent target reflects neither the needs of young people nor those for our economy. Britain already has one of the highest numbers of young people getting university degrees in the developed world.

At the same time, many young people who would benefit from a vocational education are not getting the chance. The government's response? To force many young people on to unsuitable courses, only for them to drop out with no degree and huge debts, in bloody-minded pursuit of yet another target.

With fees of up to £3,000 a year, a family with two children pursuing standard three-year degrees at leading universities will be £18,000 worse off. For a couple earning £30,000, the fees will be the equivalent to a 140 per cent rise in income tax.

These are wrong and unfair policies. We are determined to use the money set aside for these misguided policies to provide a fair deal for students and universities. A Conservative government would pursue a radically different approach that does not involve taxing students and their families even more.

We would scrap the tax on learning, abolishing university tuition fees. And we would abolish the 50 per cent target, concentrating instead on improving vocational and technical education.

We believe that increasing access for students from poorer families means improving inner-city schools. The number of children leaving state schools without a single GCSE or GNVQ has risen for the past three years, and the situation is at its worst in our inner cities. If we genuinely want to widen participation at university, we must improve schools, not rig university admissions.

The reforms we propose do not just give students and their families a fairer deal. They are in the best interests of universities too. We are committed to the long-term independence of the universities. We will scrap the government's proposed admission controls and its associated red tape, giving back to universities the freedom to concentrate on academic merit instead of dogma. The absence of fees will remove a barrier to admission of disadvantaged students, and the ability of each university to chart its own destiny will make life more fulfilling for everyone involved.

We will fund universities on the basis of the quality of their research and teaching. Ill-advised changes to funding announced in the white paper are typical of Labour's dogmatic approach. Instead of drawing a line in the sand between universities and telling them whether they will be a teaching university or a research establishment, as the government has done, we will take a flexible approach to the two functions based on the simple proposition of rewarding excellence. In return, this will require a more flexible approach from the funding councils.

Not all universities will be expected to conduct primary research. The research money freed in this consolidation will go to fewer and better research efforts. Our approach will be open-minded. Teaching universities with particularly excellent research efforts will be encouraged to develop them. Because we will always allow excellence to flourish, in disciplines decided by the universities, the prospects for quality will be brighter.

Labour, on the other hand, believes that it should boost university funding with higher fees. In fact, so inefficient are Labour's plans that they anticipate their new fees will raise only £300 million more than the current system. The total higher education budget would rise by only 2.3 per cent. But the truth is that the money from extra fees will be spent on initiatives that will not benefit students, universities or society as a whole.

By scrapping the 50 per cent target and not "rigging" admissions, a Conservative government could use the £700 million that Labour's fees will raise and use it to give a fairer deal to students and universities.

Damian Green is shadow education secretary.

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