The Conservatives' commitment to maintain spending on health services and schools will place a major question mark over the future for the education budget.
On schools, they are committed to maintain spending but that pledge only holds good until 2009-10, the end of Labour's three-year comprehensive spending review period. As they are almost certain not to take office until after then, it threatens funding for the shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove's treasured policy of apeing the Swedish education system and allowing parents, faith groups and other individuals to set up their own schools.
The pledge need not necessarily be costly, although extra government money would be needed if groups opened new schools rather than taking over existing premises. Savings could be made through scrapping the appeals system for school expulsions and reducing the role of local authorities in running the education system.
One area where big savings could be made is by scrapping Labour's school building programme – said by the Commons Public Accounts Committee to be costing £55bn up to 2023. Labour has pledged to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school, a commitment described as "very challenging" in the MPs' report and one that the Conservatives may not see as part of their pledge to maintain school funding.
The Conservatives' emphasis, though, has always been on retaining funding for schools and it is likely that even after 2010 they will be given priority for spending. That, however, begs the question of what will happen to further and higher education.
It is university funding that poses the biggest dilemma. Any incoming government will be faced with the results of a review of the top-up fees legislation, which is quite likely to recommend lifting the current cap on fees from its present level of £3,145 a year. The Conservatives dropped their opposition to top-up fees soon after the last election. The then Tory Higher Education spokesman Boris Johnson admitted that the opposition to widening university participation that went with it did not play well with voters. "We had to tell people we were in favour of a university education but not for your children," he said.
The dilemma for the Conservatives will be whether – with drop-out rates rising and fear of debt likely to increase because of the recession – they can afford to raise fees. Alternatively, can they afford not to with the squeeze they will have to impose on public spending?