Tim Collins: Why top-up fees must be killed off

Conservatives object in principle to measures that give the state control over university admissions
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The Independent Online

As Tony Blair contemplates a showdown with his party over top-up fees, he should abandon hope of deliverance from the Tory benches. Conservatives will vote against his Bill with a clear conscience. It is a clear breach of Labour's 2001 manifesto, which pledged: "We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them". Not only is he breaking his promise, he is also making a trial of strength out of forcing his backbenchers to do the same.

We object in principle to measures that give the state, not universities, control over admissions. Our opposition is firm on the economics, too. Mr Blair wants to pay for a target he has invented - a 50 per cent entry rate. He asserts that this arbitrary figure is vital for the economy, yet employer organisations demand a focus on quality, not quantity.

As usual, New Labour concentrates on inputs, not outputs. Few nations have a higher graduate proportion of the workforce than Britain. The traditional UK system kept drop-out rates low. Mr Blair's breakneck expansion undermines this. Drop-out rates on some courses and at certain institutions are now more than 50 per cent. Labour's own former higher education minister attacked "Mickey Mouse" courses. Yet it is these courses and institutions which are expected to provide for the bulk of any expansion. Paying for this "achievement" could turn our best universities into experiments in social engineering, hit the middle classes with another stealth tax and frighten able students from low-income backgrounds away from study.

A NatWest survey shows that half of all potential students are now considering not going to university because of the fees, and that student debt has soared by 38 per cent since 2000. Yet the Prime Minister's answer is to increase both fees and debt. Worse, the plans do not achieve their own objective. The Institute of Fiscal Studies reports that they pay for no more than half the cost of achieving Blair's beloved 50 per cent target. So his policy only half pays for something which is unnecessary, and maybe not even desirable.

Meanwhile, there remains a real problem for higher education, which ministers ignore. Funding per student has halved since 1980 under all governments of both colours. It is thus increasingly unrealistic to expect our universities to compete globally for the best minds. No doubt higher education could be more efficient, but this alone cannot answer the serious financial problems.No party has come up with a credible long-term means of closing the gap between what our learning institutions need and what they are likely to get. The Government's plans will make funding levels per student worse. The Liberal Democrats, as ever, promise more for everyone - paid for, they claim, by income tax rises on only the very richest. But even they cannot squeeze £15bn of pledges out of a tax rise which would not raise a third of that.

Conservatives accept that we, too, have not yet come up with the full answer. But we are developing several options in close consultation with academics and others. These might include new methods for boosting endowment funds, greater links with business, and/or redirection of resources from other spending areas. We also, of course, reject the 50 per cent target.

Conservatives recognise that while the Bill will sharply cut university independence the only responsible solution is to increase it. We do not pretend yet to have ironed out each and every potential difficulty - and it is time that other parties displayed similar honesty. As some vice-chancellors admit, top-up fees would begin to provide a way out only if they were set at levels four to six times higher than the £3,000 limit which ministers have pledged to keep at least for a decade.

Killing the flawed, dishonest and illiberal Bill produced by Mr Blair would be the best favour Parliament could do for our universities, students and parents. Doing so, however, must ignite a renewed debate on how best to pay for the immense contribution which our universities must make to our learning, culture and competitiveness.

Tim Collins, MP, is the Conservative spokesman on education