`If we win on 1 May...' Discuss

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What will the next government do about higher education? In particular, what will it do about funding for the hard-pressed university system, and about an independent review body for academics and other staff? The Association of University Teachers asked five parties for their views. Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, avoided committing herself; spokesmen for the other parties were more specific. Labour said it would consider setting up a pay review body, while the smaller parties said they would definitely establish one.

Gillian Shephard MP Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Conservative Party

The United Kingdom has every reason to be proud of its higher education system and its achievements during the past 17 years. Since 1979, the total number of students in the UK has doubled, to nearly 1.7 million in 1995. The proportion of young people entering full-time higher education in Great Britain has risen from 12 per cent in 1979 to more than 30 per cent now. Current government spending plans allow for this record level of participation to be maintained over the next three years.

The UK has the highest graduation rate for first degrees in the European Union. By the year 2001, the number of graduates in the workforce is likely to be well over 3 million - twice as high as in 1981. All this has been achieved without any evidence of a reduction in standards. For example, on entry standards, the average A-level points score for students entering with GCSE A-levels has remained the same for the past six years, at 18 points.

We are spending record amounts on higher education. Total public spending on higher education in the UK, including student support, is now more than pounds 7bn. This represents 20 per cent of total education spending.

These are impressive achievements. However, after such fast growth, the Government believes it is time to take stock and consider the future of higher education. No such review has taken place for 30 years, since the Robbins Report, and much has changed. That is why the Government established the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, under the chairmanship of Sir Ron Dearing.

One of the recommendations we have asked the committee to consider is the future funding of higher education. In our own evidence, the Government has made clear that so long as initial full-time higher education is funded from the public purse the projected rate of return to the nation's investment should be a major factor in determining its size.

David Blunkett, MP

In 1964, Harold Wilson's new government set out to implement the Robbins Report and proceeded to reform and expand higher education. Its achievements were impressive: by the Seventies the polytechnic sector and the Open University had been created, the universities had been expanded, and student numbers had increased.

In 1997, an incoming Labour government will receive the recommendations of the first major inquiry into higher education since Robbins. The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, was established last year on a bipartisan basis and, contrary to popular misconception, has before it detailed proposals from the Labour Party.

Central to our policies is the recognition that a new system of funding higher education and its students is necessary. We cannot continue to muddle through with a funding framework inherited from the past. It is inefficient, inequitable and inappropriate to lifelong learning

We propose to replace the existing mess of maintenance grants, a flawed student loans scheme and parental contributions, with a single maintenance award, repayable according to graduate earnings. By transferring the risk for the debt to the private sector, such a scheme would release significant public resources for investment in improving access to a high-quality higher education sector.

We are firmly committed to improved access. But access is also more than just a numbers game - it is about who participates. Social justice demands that we improve the participation rates of those from lower-income backgrounds. In some parts of the country, higher education is an unquestioned expectation; in others it is a virtual impossibility. That must change.

We will also look to the recommendations of the Dearing Committee for substantial improvement in research assessment. The research assessment exercise has generated significant and well-attested dysfunctions: a transfer market of academics, a publications paperchase and a competitive ethos that minimises the potential for collaboration between institutions. Labour will seek to promote greater research cooperation, improve assessment and resource distribution, and use new technologies to encourage access for academics to scholarship activities. We accept that selectivity is necessary in research funding but recognise that over-concentration has its dangers and oppose the concept of a super-league of universities. Labour has also proposed to the Dearing Committee that it examines the pressures to recruit and retain academic staff. One option would be to consider the arrangements for pay review that already exist in school teaching.

Don Foster, MP

With the Dearing Inquiry conveniently not reporting until this summer the Liberal Democrats felt the crisis in higher education needed a more urgent response - and that's what we offer in "The key to lifelong learning", our policy document on tertiary education.

The document outlines a framework for lifelong learning which would re- establish quality provision in further and higher education, extend access - especially to those of limited means - and tackle the deepening crisis of student poverty. As for the crucial question of resources, the document details how we could increase investments and give students greater flexibility and choice by creating a learning investment partnership. This would boost investment by encouraging contributions from employers and individual students - with additional funds from the government. We would set up a learning bank with an entitlement to individual learning accounts, enabling students to pursue education or training at any time in their adult lives. Each person over the age of 18 would be eligible to register at the learning bank and students could debit their individual learning account to cover fees, living expenses and course-related costs such as textbooks. And a new student contribution scheme would replace the current student loan scheme. Students would pay back through the national insurance scheme, but only when their earnings reached an agreed level.

Some of the money provided by the government would be allocated directly to institutions in the form of a block grant as at present. The remainder would be channelled through individual learning accounts and the government's contribution would cover, as a minimum, the cost of fees on approved courses. We would also introduce a 2 per cent remissible education and training levy on company payrolls and provide a mechanism for employers to contribute into their employees' individual learning accounts. Therefore students could build up and use individual learning accounts to pursue the education most appropriate to them. We will establish an independent pay review body for academic and related staff.

Andrew Welsh, MP

In any nation, the education system is vital to the economic, social and cultural life of the country. In Scotland, we have a tradition of pride in education. Since the Seventies, however, Scottish education has been on the defensive, threatened at every turn by government underfunding. Lack of investment threatens the quality and the breadth of Scottish higher education and is particularly disturbing when student numbers are dramatically increasing.

Government policy to increase the numbers in higher education has not been met with the necessary increase in funding. The lack of resources for institutions has been accompanied by cuts in funding for staff. As student numbers rise, teaching and teaching conditions deteriorate.

Further financial cuts cannot be sustained. The Scottish National Party is calling upon politicians of all parties to demand a halt to imposing so-called "efficiency savings". With the establishment of an independent Scottish parliament, our education system would be given due political priority. It would provide the opportunity for investment and an independent pay review for higher education - a measure which would help restore some of the morale lost during successive years of cuts.

The SNP proposes a substantial investment in education. We plan to relieve spiralling student debt and poverty by restoring student grants and benefits, and propose to invest pounds 240m in research and development.

Cyriog Datis, MP

After years of rapid expansion in student numbers, major structural changes and a substantial erosion of resources in real terms, the higher education system in Wales, and throughout the UK, urgently requires a period of stability.

It may be possible in theory to continue to educate more people for less cost, but that can only be done at the expense of lowering quality. An accredited training framework should be developed for academic teachers, and the internal structures of universities and conditions of work should be designed to give academics the greatest possible opportunity and incentive to concentrate on their primary role of promoting learning and scholarship.

The long-term decline, in comparative terms, in the salaries of academic and related staff should be addressed urgently, by establishing an independent pay review body. It is also important that rates of pay should continue to be centrally negotiated and determined.

Collaboration between academic disciplines and between institutions must be strongly promoted as part of the framework for the future of universities and the funding formula should reward collaborative initiatives in teaching and research. The post-Dearing period is likely to place great emphasis on a flexible learning structure. The expansion of opportunities for study, through credit accumulation and transfer, part-time study, distance learning and open learning are welcome and necessary. An essential element in any equitable funding structure is a means of providing students with adequate financial support repayable over a long term period in proportion to their ability to pay. Special assistance should be provided to students from low-income backgrounds

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