Simon Hughes has a huge responsibility to ensure fair access to universities

National Union of Students president Aaron Porter writes about the huge responsibility facing the govt's new 'Advocate for Access to Education' Simon Hughes.

Yesterday I sent a letter to Simon Hughes MP, marking his appointment as the government’s ‘Advocate for Access to Education’. I welcome the creation of this role and I plan to work with Mr Hughes to influence the implementation of the government’s plans for further and higher education to ensure that as few students as possible are put off by the rise in tuition fees, and progress to widen access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds continues.

Make no mistake, the rise in tuition fees and cuts to funding and access schemes will damage access, but I have a responsibility to work to ensure a fairer deal for students wherever opportunities exist and whatever the overall picture. To cease to engage in the process now would lead to further damage for students. It is more vital now than ever that we push for protections to access.

Figures from UCAS yesterday suggested that one in three applicants could miss out on a university place next year as students hoping to beat the rise in fees compete with the hundreds of thousands that missed out in the last couple of years.

Placing arbitrary limits on the number of places will almost inevitably exclude talented and ambitious candidates, denying them the chance to fulfil their potential at a time when our economic recovery desperately needs talented people with good qualifications. It is a fact that virtually every developed nation is investing in higher education in order to aid economic recovery – just the UK and Romania are reducing investment.

Facing the difficult circumstances we are presented with Simon Hughes now has a vital role in protecting university education and the hopes and ambitions of a generation. His record so far has not been good – letting his constituents down by abstaining on the vote setting an example for other abstentions and allowing the bill to pass – but he has always spoken of the importance of ensuring fair access even whilst speaking about the plans to raise tuition fees, so I believe we can work constructively with him on this matter.

In my letter I made a series of recommendations to Mr Hughes that should form his initial priorities as he takes on his new role.

First, he should ensure clarification of the Government’s ‘National Scholarship Scheme’, this should have been finalised before fees were allowed to rise, it was not and it becomes increasingly urgent that students are told how its funds will be directed.

He must ensure too that the government is held to its promise that only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ would universities be permitted to raise fees to more than £6,000 and also that there be real requirements on universities to ensure they recruit from under-represented groups. The current record, particularly of the most famous universities, in recruiting from disadvantaged groups is appalling and must be reversed.

He should work towards the reinstatement of the much under-rated AimHigher scheme which worked with younger people from disadvantaged backgrounds to promote applications for university and raise aspiration amongst groups where levels of application are currently very low.

It is important too that the government addresses the concerns of those in the Muslim community who feel that the rise in the interest rate on tuition fee loans means they feel unable to access them. These concerns have been raised with ministers but so far there has been no response.

Finally, and potentially most importantly, Simon Hughes must call for the instatement of the Education Maintenance Allowance.

The EMA is a vital lifeline for many studying at A-Level and is proven to improve achievement and attainment for those from poorer backgrounds. The Institute for Fiscal Studies analysed the cost-effectiveness of the EMA and found that for any expected outcome it was an effective and worthwhile tool. It has already been scrapped and Mr Hughes has been given jurisdiction only to recommend how its paltry replacement funds are spent but he must fight for the full reinstatement of the EMA.

The UCAS figures underline just how fiercely university places will be fought for until government begins investing in higher education again. Mr Hughes is in a position to ensure that it is not those from the wealthiest backgrounds or the sharpest elbows that get to university but rather those with greatest ambition and the potential to benefit most.

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