The Conservative Party chairman has revealed that the Tories may not try to repeal legislation bringing in university top-up fees if Tony Blair succeeds in pushing his controversial Higher Education Bill through Parliament.
In the clearest hint the Tories are preparing to drop their opposition to tuition fees before the next election, Liam Fox said he was "open-minded" about how to fund university education in Britain and did not rule out tuition fees.
In an interview with The Independent, Dr Fox said his party had launched "the most wide-ranging review of education ever done in Britain" which would include travelling to places such as America and Canada, where students pay fees. "I think we need to look at what's happening across a range of other systems. We need to look at the experience of how other countries work," he said. "We will look at how we get different levels and types of funding into higher education, we will look at what other models there are."
The Tories plan to look closely at the American system, in which students pay huge fees and are saddled with big debts and universities receive huge endowments from alumni. "It's a very different system. We do really need to have a look at what works elsewhere," he said.
Dr Fox insisted the party remained strongly opposed to the Government's formula for top-up fees and would vote against the Higher Education Bill in the Commons and Lords. But he said when drawing up Tory education policy, "we cannot allow our position to be defined by what government does."
Asked if the Tories would repeal the top-up fees Bill if they won power, he replied: "That would depend on what ultimately becomes our settled view before the election."
His remarks were seized on by Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, who accused the Tories of "jeopardising the future of our universities for pure political opportunism".
"Liam Fox has highlighted that he is open-minded about how the Tories would plug the funding gap in universities and he has not ruled out some form of tuition fees," Mr Clarke said. "That goes to show that the only reason they don't back our plans is purely to defeat the Government."
Since Michael Howard became Conservative leader in November, the Tories have gradually moved away from the "no tuition fees" policy adopted by Iain Duncan Smith. Interviewed on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme yesterday, Mr Howard refused to restate his predecessor's pledge, while maintaining his opposition to Labour's plans.
Mr Howard gave his clearest hint that the Tories' election manifesto would promise tax cuts, a pledge he has been wary of making. He hoped that the party's search for government waste would "enable us to say, at the time of the next election, yes we will be able to cut your taxes".
Mr Blair's hopes of avoiding defeat on top-up fees were boosted when Chris Smith, the former culture secretary, switched sides and said he would support the Government because of its package for students from low-income families. But he warned that tomorrow week's vote was "absolutely on a knife edge".
Many rebels remain unpersuaded despite the Government making changes to the proposals in an attempt to force the legislation through.
Tony Banks, the former sports minister, told GMTV's Sunday programme that defeat would be "hugely damaging" for Mr Blair. "If he loses the vote, I think he will to stand down, given that he has put his authority on the line," he said.
* The veteran Labour MP George Foulkes, a former minister, announced yesterday he will not be standing at the next general election after more than a quarter of a century in the House of Commons.
Mr Foulkes, MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, entered Parliament in May 1979. He announced his decision to retire to the members of what would have been his new constituency, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, under boundary changes which will reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster from 72 to 59.
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