THE NEW chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England has vowed to make promoting access the key theme of his three-year appointment.
Sir Michael Checkland, 61, former director general of the BBC, has a keen interest in lifelong learning, developed through his work with broadcasting and education.
"So much of our education isn't giving people choices," he said. "People from low-income families and some schools have a poor chance of getting into higher education and that's unacceptable."
He said HEFCE was already setting up a special group to consider access issues. But access did not mean neglecting quality. "I'm saying elite institutions have to be available for all."
Sir Michael, who succeeds Yorkshire Water chairman Brandon Gough, recognises a serious funding gap affecting university infrastructures. He also wants any expansion in student numbers to be supported by more money. But he welcomes the government's recent announcement of extra cash for higher education.
"The crucial thing is if we are moving in the direction of making students pay then that money must go back into higher education and not into Treasury funds," he said.
He was educated at one of Birmingham's King Edward grammar schools and Wadham College, Oxford, where he read history. Sir Michael has been a governor of Birkbeck College in London, Westminster College in Oxford and Brighton University. He was also involved in developing the Open University in 1968.
These experiences have given him a respect for diversity, although he has not yet made up his mind on Oxbridge college fees. "I have to consider the arguments," he said. "I have had the benefit of Oxford and the college system myself."
His governorship of the Methodist-based Westminster College, which he served as this year's vice-president of the Methodist Conference, has taught him that universities need a strong ethos and "a sense of the importance of their communities and clear values".
He saw the BBC occupying a valuable role in giving people access to education long after they had left school and allowing many a second chance. It was also a way of establishing a link between education and cultural life - something he has pursued through his involvement with Brighton University and the Brighton Festival.
Sir Michael joined the BBC in 1964 as a senior accountant and moved through the organisation to become director general in 1987, remaining until retirement in 1993.
He has been director of BBC Enterprises, director and chairman of Visnews and president of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. He is a trustee of Reuters, non-executive director of Nynex Cable Communications and commissioner of the Independent Television Commission.
He is also a director of the National Youth Music Theatre, chairman of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and chairman of the National Children's Home Action for Children.
Sir Michael will spend about two days a week working for HEFCE.
The funding council has also appointed seven new board members: Marilyn Butler, rector of Exeter College, Oxford; Ron Cooke, vice chancellor of York University; Caroline Neville, principal of City College, Norwich; David Potter, chairman and chief executive of Psion plc; Sir Gareth Roberts, vice chancellor of Sheffield University; Keith Taylor, chairman and chief executive of Esso UK plc; and Dorma Urwin, principal of Worcester College of Higher Education.