Leading Article: Teams take poll positions

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As we stumble towards the next general election, opposition politicians are dusting down their ideas. In higher education, there is not much to divide Conservatives from Labour – David Willetts is keeping pretty quiet about tuition fees because he knows it's the one issue that almost defeated Tony Blair.

So, on the vexed subject of whether the cap on top-up fees should be lifted to allow universities to charge more, Willetts sounds pretty negative. Although there were rumours that the Lib Dems were rowing back on their opposition to fees, they have announced that they are still committed to that position, certainly as regards first degrees. That is one area in which the voters have a clear choice – but it will cost money, just as another Lib Dem programme will: to cut class sizes to 15 for four- to seven-year-olds.

The Conservatives want schools to be given more freedom to pay teachers what they want on the grounds that this rewards good staff. In higher education, they are focusing on issues of quality and standards that resonate with the public. Research is taking a back seat because it is not a vote-winner. Some universities deplore that, but it is the way things are in a democracy.