Lib Dem Hughes bids to lessen tuition fees impact

By Alex Stevenson

Scholarships should be allocated directly to English schools to reduce the impact of tuition fee reforms, Simon Hughes has proposed.

The government's advocate for access to higher education, who is also the Liberal Democrats' deputy leader, outlined 30 recommendations on how to get more students from deprived backgrounds to apply to university in a report published today.

He was among angry Lib Dem backbenchers who opposed the decision to abandon his party's pledge not to increase tuition fees. Under the coalition's plans the maximum a university can charge is now £9,000 a year.

"There's enough money in the kitty allocated by government that we could produce, in year one, which is next year – three scholarships for every single school in the country," Mr Hughes told the Today programme.

"It's one of the things that would make sure that nobody thought help with financing to go to university wasn't available for youngsters like you in a school like yours."

The school would decide which students are awarded the scholarship, with the proviso that they are from a low-income background.

They would then apply to university with the knowledge that they have the extra financial support if they are awarded a place.

Ministers welcomed the report. Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable said the report had given the government an "invaluable insight into young peoples' reactions to the higher education reforms.

Universities minister David Willetts said he agreed that "young people must be supported in making well-informed decisions on university entrance, apprenticeships and other opportunities".

"Our student finance campaign and the new independent taskforce on student finance have been focussed on helping young people and those advising them," he added.

"But the job is far from complete and I warmly welcome Simon's advice on how we can improve the reach of such work."

Mr Hughes' appointment to the role was widely seen in Westminster as an attempt to reduce criticism of the tuition fees move from the Lib Dem deputy leader.

But much of the higher education sector and its representatives remain unconvinced.

"Given that EMA has been scrapped, university fees have trebled, Aimhigher, careers advice centres and the future jobs fund have gone what exactly is the point of this report?" University and College union general secretary Sally Hunt asked.

"Surely any such report should have been commissioned, and published, before important access to education decisions were made?

"However well-meaning this report may be, it has all the authority of the Liberal Democrats' pledge to vote against a rise in university fees."