Six months' hard labour for Hughes

Lib Dem deputy must move quickly in access role, say senior sector figures. Rebecca Attwood reports

January 6, 2011

The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats must act swiftly to rescue efforts to widen participation to university following the abolition of two key access schemes, experts warned this week.

Over Christmas, the coalition government revealed that Simon Hughes is to take on the newly created role of "access champion", a six-month post that will see him work to encourage young people from poor backgrounds to enter higher education.

The announcement comes a month after the government revealed that it would stop funding Aimhigher, its £250 million national outreach programme, and MPs voted to increase the cap on undergraduate tuition fees to £9,000.

Funding for the education maintenance allowance (EMA), a payment of up to £30 a week to children from poor families who remain in post-16 education, will also come to an end this year.

Graeme Atherton, executive director of the Aimhigher West, Central and North London Partnership, said that while he welcomed "anything that raised the profile of access to higher education", the closure of Aimhigher and abolition of the EMA meant that government policy in the area "did not seem coherent".

Mr Hughes has been tasked with designing a communications strategy that will inform young people and their parents about the new system.

The MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who said that he opposes tuition fees and who abstained during the recent Commons vote, will also solicit the views of young people on the design of the government's planned national scholarship programme and consider what measures should be applied to universities that decide to charge fees of more than £6,000.

A panel of access advocates will also be set up.

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of Million+, which represents a group of new universities, said: "Simon Hughes has a good track record in promoting access and participation in higher education. As the group of universities who deliver most in this area, I assume we'll be the group he'll work most closely with."

But Professor Ebdon said a number of issues needed to be resolved on a very tight timescale.

"We mustn't end up with a series of access agreements that penalise those universities doing the most for widening participation," he said.

So far, the promised consultation on the national scholarship programme had been "non-existent" and there were "real concerns about the proposals which are on the table at the moment", he said.

Professor Ebdon said Mr Hughes must also examine the issue of the EMA.

"The abolition of the EMA has snuck by on the blind side in the fuss about fees. The crucial decision about going to university is made at 16, not at 18, and the EMA plays a really important role in keeping youngsters in education," he said.

Labour accused the government of "total hypocrisy" over the appointment.

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