The heat was on Labour at fringe conference meetings, reports Alison Goddard
The government's record on widening participation in higher education was attacked this week by Maggie Woodrow, head of the European Access Network, at the Labour Party conference in Brighton.
"Can Labour break down the barriers to higher education? On the face of it, the answer is yes. If you take a closer look, the barriers are perhaps of Labour's making," she told a fringe meeting.
In particular, she attacked the new student support arrangements - under which students must apply for loans and bursaries rather than maintenance grants - and the "talent spotting" system of funding specific initiatives, such as summer schools at prestigious universities. Instead, she said, the embedded premium that institutions receive for enrolling students from poorer areas should be increased.
The University for Industry also came under fire. "Is the UfI the Millennium Dome of higher education?" Ms Woodrow asked.
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone defended the government's record, describing parts of Ms Woodrow's attack as "nonsense" and "absolute rubbish". She pointed to the expansion of further education and praised the education maintenance allowances for 16 to 19-year-olds - worth up to Pounds 40 a week - that have been piloted in some areas. "So far the results of the pilot educational maintenance allowance scheme look good and I hope we will be able to roll it out nationwide," she said.
Owain James, National Union of Students president, called for a Cubie-style review of the "discredited" student support arrangements. Baroness Blackstone had earlier ruled out such an inquiry in an interview with The THES.
Tom Wilson, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, highlighted the problem of retaining students from lower income groups.
Each year, about 60,000 students from lower social classes do not go to university at all, but about 40,000 of those who do then drop out, he said. Some of the money for access should be directed at lowering the dropout rate, he suggested.