Put money in their purses: access advocate backs scholarships over waivers

Large scholarships that put cash in students' pockets while they are studying should be offered by universities in preference to fee waivers, the government's advocate for access to education has recommended.

July 21, 2011

Simon Hughes, who this week submitted his report to ministers on how to stop poorer students being deterred by high fees, said that disadvantaged young people were more concerned about accumulating bank debt as a result of their living costs than with tuition charges that are deferred until after graduation.

The Liberal Democrat deputy leader, who revealed some of his report's findings to a cross-party group of MPs, added that universities should be forced to fund replacements for the government's axed Aimhigher programme to widen participation in higher education.

Giving evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on 18 July, Mr Hughes said he had "considerably more confidence" now than when he was appointed to the role at the end of 2010 that access would not be harmed by the "reputation" of higher fees.

However, he said, he was not completely happy with the amount of money being invested in communicating the changes and had told the government that a "huge effort" was needed over the next six months to reinforce the message.

The MP, who has been touring schools, colleges and universities to hear evidence on the issue, said four key concerns had emerged: the quality of careers advice; access to work experience; the language of fees and debt; and the types of financial support.

Asked for his view on the best ways to improve access, Mr Hughes said that outreach activities were "key", but when comparing fee waivers and upfront support, he was clear that poorer students wanted the latter.

"What they worry about is the debt that can't be put off," he said, referring to the use by students of overdraft facilities and credit cards to help them meet living costs. "It isn't going to be fee waivers that matter to students."

Mr Hughes said the ideal situation would be for flexible scholarships that could be used to cover living costs or fees to be offered to every school in the country to help persuade all able students from poor backgrounds to apply to university.

He said a problem with the current National Scholarship Programme was that support was tied to individual institutions.

His view on fee waivers will cast doubt on the government's existing access measures.

Vice-chancellors have criticised the push towards fee waivers, which save the Treasury money by reducing the size of taxpayer-backed loans.

Meanwhile, Mr Hughes also said that any university charging more than £6,000 should be compelled to fund regionally coordinated outreach programmes in a bid to replace the national Aimhigher scheme.

"It was well regarded around the country, and not just by people who worked in it," he said.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who also gave evidence to the MPs, said he would "look carefully" at Mr Hughes' proposals, but added that the "best features" of Aimhigher would be replicated through increased investment in outreach.

He also conceded that more universities than expected had chosen a headline fee of £9,000, but added that fee waivers and bursaries meant that "diversity" in charges would be found between individual students rather than institutions.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

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