Sector pays tribute to Higgins, champion of access

April 23, 2004

Tributes were paid this week to Tony Higgins, the first chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and a champion of widening access, who died at the end of last week.

Mr Higgins, who headed Ucas from its inception in 1993 until his retirement because of ill health in July last year, died last Friday, aged 59.

He led Ucas into the political arena by using his position to push the widening participation agenda. His impact was such that The Times Higher listed him as one of the glaring omissions from this year's New Year honours list.

Mr Higgins made his mark by founding the Polytechnics Central Admissions System. As chief executive of Pcas between 1984 and 1993, he did much to raise the profile of polytechnics and colleges.

His efforts contributed to the granting of university titles to the polytechnics in 1993, at which point he became chief executive of Ucas, which was formed from Pcas and the Universities Central Council on Admissions.

Unlike Ucca, Ucas had a broader remit that allowed it scope to advise on and drive forward policy on university access. This was ideal for Mr Higgins, who relished the political role.

Jess Enderby, acting deputy chief executive of Ucas and a friend of Mr Higgins, said: "Tony was never afraid to put his head above the parapet and, to an extent, he did politicise Ucas. His personality was such that he felt strongly that that was a legitimate role for Ucas."

Mr Higgins was caught in the crossfire in the war of words over the introduction of tuition fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants in 1998.

Baroness Blackstone, who was then higher education minister, accused him of "irresponsible scaremongering" over his statements about the potentially negative effect of fees on university applications.

At the same time, opposition politicians charged that Ucas was spinning unwarranted good news about a tiny rise in the number of school-leavers starting full-time courses when, in fact, overall numbers were down.

Throughout this period, Mr Higgins continued to develop plans to expand, democratise and demystify the service offered by Ucas. This included setting up online applications and expanding them to the stage where half of all applications are now made via the web.

Mr Higgins also introduced a controversial qualifications tariff in 2001.

This gave official recognition to vocational qualifications, which some saw as an attack on the A-level gold standard. The tariff is now used by the vast majority of universities.

Alan Johnson, minister for lifelong learning, further and higher education, said: "Tony's contribution to higher education has been a significant one - in particular his commitment to widening participation and his enthusiasm in emphasising the importance of higher education in people's lives."

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