Minister's 'routes to learning' are long on goodwill, short on bus fare

Hayes draws fire at colleges conference for removal of maintenance allowance. Hannah Fearn reports

November 25, 2010

The coalition government is to open new routes into higher education through vocational and practical training.

Speaking at the Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham last week, John Hayes, minister for further education, said that the relationship between higher and further education has to be closer, with a greater role for colleges.

He told Times Higher Education that at "the heart" of the government's policy is the growth of the apprenticeship.

"We're looking to apprenticeships as a route into higher learning. Progression is central to our ambition. We're working on it with absolute commitment."

Mr Hayes added: "I have asked for many more (higher education qualifications other than degrees) to be developed, for example in engineering, the IT industry and the financial sector...The further education movement has a great history and a glorious future."

However, John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham, said the most important advance would be a shift in attitudes. "We have a real issue around establishing parity of esteem between traditional higher education and high-level skills," he said.

Mr Hayes also faced widespread criticism at the conference for the withdrawal of the education maintenance allowance, which supports students from low-income backgrounds to stay in further education.

The government has announced its intention to introduce a student loans-style system to fund those studying for Level 3 qualifications over the age of 24.

Critics claimed the removal of the allowance would restrict access to higher education; many students spend the £30-a-week allowance on transport to college.

Shane Chowen, vice president (further education) of the National Union of Students, said the decision would increase the number of students who drop out of college.

When the issue was put to delegates at the conference, a show of hands indicated that the vast majority are opposed to the removal of the allowance.

Mr Chowen said he was also concerned about the impact of the Browne Review on the choices made by lower-income students thinking about higher education.

He likened these to the choices people make about their weekly shop.

"Do I go for the Tesco Value (product) that I can afford, or do I go for the Tesco Finest which I probably can't? University is looking less and less attractive to those from low-income backgrounds," he said.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, former head of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, said that while Lord Browne's proposals are "a massive gamble", they are also an opportunity for the further education sector to do more.

This view was supported by Mr Widdowson, who said: "If the argument for higher education as a public good has been set back for a while, the role that further education colleges can play is to fill some of those gaps."

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