13/05/2003

Tories pledge to scrap university tuition fees

In a gentle change of tack over the past few weeks, the Conservative Party has taken the initiative and published a clutch of policies pledges – the foremost of which is today's plans to scrap university tuition fees and abandon entrance targets.

Under current government plans, universities will be able to charge up to £3,000 a year for undergraduate courses beginning in 2006. Labour has also announced that it wants to see 50% of school leavers to enter university by 2010.

However, shadow education secretary Damian Green pledged today that a Tory government would scrap both and so create "a fair deal for students and universities" by reducing the university sector into one "smaller, better focused, and open to all who deserve to be there". The Tories believe that the £700 million a year cost of the policy shake-up would be met by the abandonment of the government's plans.

He added: "Labour's university tuition fees are a tax on learning. They have let down hard-working families who want their children to get on, leaving young people with huge debts when they start work, and universities tied up in red tape."

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said the changes in higher education would be matched by an increase in vocational courses at schools.

"In Holland, for example, all schools train people to go to university as well as to be plumbers, electricians and builders. In this country we don't do any of that vocational training," he said.

The government's new university access regulator - Office for Fair Access - set up to fulfil Labour's five-year access pledges for universities would also go.

In an interview this morning, Higher Education Minister Margaret Hodge said the plans would result in catastrophe.

"Abolishing all tuition fees will mean immediate terrible cuts in student numbers," she said.

"There would be 100,000 fewer students in our universities, and there would be 6,500 fewer lecturers whom we have recruited."

The policy was dismissed as a "belated gimmick" by Liberal Democrat shadow education secretary Phil Willis.

"The Tory approach to tuition fees comes at a price – less young people in our universities," he said.

"The Conservatives have failed to produce credible figures for the abolition of fees, and by limiting the number of students in higher education have denied future generations of poorer students an opportunity to access higher education.

"The glaring omission in Tory policy is the failure to provide a single penny to our universities to fund infrastructure and staffing needs."

(GMcG)

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