Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, set out yesterday what he sees as the problem with higher education in Britain: too many young people are at university. Many should be on vocational training instead of wasting their time with "Mickey Mouse" courses, he claimed.
His remarks highlight the major difference between the Tories and Labour over the future of universities. The Government's target is to create enough university places so that half of all school leavers can take a university degree. Part of the cost of the expansion in universities is to be met by charging students for their tuition, which they will repay after graduation. The Tories have said they will abolish tuition fees and will save money by aiming for a lower total of university students.
"If you look at the drop-out rates and some of the Mickey Mouse courses, there are probably a good number of people at university today who would benefit far more from proper vocational education education that is geared to their needs, to their requirement to gain the skills that is going to get them a decent job outside university," Mr Howard told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
He said that the top-up fee scheme would not even cover the costs of achieving the Government's target of providing university places for 50 per cent of young people.
"It is a proposal that is in complete breach of their manifesto, it is a proposal that doesn't make any kind of sense, it is a proposal that is going to saddle people on very modest incomes with very significant debts and it isn't even going to pay for the Government's own stated objective," he said.
The issue has created a tactical alliance between the Conservatives and rebel Labour MPs, who fear that making some university courses more expensive than others will drive children from lower-income families into the cheaper courses rather than those that would suit them best.
Leading rebels were more confident than ever that the proposal to introduce variable fees will be defeated in the Commons next month, despite a hint from Tony Blair that he might resign if that happens.
Tomorrow, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, will hold the first of six planned meetings with MPs to quell a rebellion that has been joined by three in five backbench Labour members.
Martin Salter, a leading rebel, said: "It's always good when ministers seek to explain a controversial policy, but this is a charm offensive which should have started nine months ago if it was to have any prospect of success."Reuse content