Hughes takes role of access champion

A senior Liberal Democrat who opposes tuition fees has been appointed to a new post that will see him work to encourage young people from poor backgrounds to go to university.

December 29, 2010

Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, abstained from the vote to raise the cap on fees, to which he recently declared his “long and continuing opposition”.

However, Downing Street today announced that the prime minister, David Cameron, and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, have appointed the MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark to the new role of advocate for access to education.

The move comes after MPs voted to introduce university tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year from 2012 in England.

In a letter to Mr Hughes, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg write that “in the heat of recent debate, some elements of the package have been obscured and there is a material risk that young people – particularly those from disadvantaged groups – may be deterred from applying to university as a result of being misled about the financial impacts of the package”.

They say that this particularly applies to those aged 15-16 who will make decisions in the coming months on whether or not to stay on in education for A levels.

“For them to be deterred from entering university as a result of misinformation would be a tragedy for them,” the letter says.

A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the new fee system, under which graduates will begin to repay their loans once they are earning more than £21,000, found that it would leave the lowest-earning 20-25 per cent of graduates better off than under the current system. However, when the system is examined by students’ parental income, a different picture emerges, with the poorest 30 per cent paying “significantly more” than they do now, according to the IFS.

Today’s appointment comes after criticism of the government’s decision to abolish its £250 million national access scheme, Aimhigher.

The decision has led to warnings that young people from poor backgrounds will face a “postcode lottery” over information and guidance about university at exactly the time they will most need impartial advice about higher education.

Mr Hughes’ role will see him work with the government “to ensure that its policy goal of increasing participation in higher education by those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds is met”, according to the letter.

He will help to draw up a communications strategy designed to ensure that young people and their parents are well informed about the new system.

During the six-month appointment, Mr Hughes will also gather the views of young people on the design of the government’s planned national scholarship programme and investigate “the government’s approach to the Office for Fair Access” and the measures that will apply to universities charging fees of more than £6,000.

A panel of access advocates will also be established.

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said: “We welcome any efforts to open up access to higher education and will work positively with Hughes to achieve it, but the role is a tiny plaster over a gaping wound.”

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