среда, 29 декабря 2010 г.

Simon Hughes gets higher education role

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Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, has been appointed to a new role of advocate for access to higher education, in a signal that the coalition is prepared to reshape its plans to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The unprecedented unpaid appointment was agreed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg before Christmas, and follows the controversy that followed the Commons decision to treble tuition fees from 2012.

In an admission that he is losing the propaganda war, Cameron, in his letter appointing Hughes claimed there was a "material risk" poor schoolchildren would be put off by "misinformation" from applying to higher education institutions or staying on to study A-levels.

Hughes – who abstained from the vote on tuition fees – is being asked to frame an effective message to communicate to low income families on how the government's aid package will help potential students deterred by the risk of huge debt.

It was also being stressed that Hughes will have the power to make policy recommendations for what should replace the abolished £560m education maintenance allowance aimed at helping poor children into further education. EMA subsidised young people in England who remain in education after the age of 16 by up to £30 a week if they came from poorer families.

Ministers claimed studies showed 90% of the 600,000 young people in receipt of EMA would have continued their studies anyway, and a better targeted replacement was required. The current EMA scheme is due to close to new applicants in January.

Hughes will also advise on the future shape of the planned £150m national scholarship fund. The coalition said it wants to look at a model of a foundation year for young people with high potential, but lower qualifications.

Hughes is also to be asked to look at ways in which universities charging more than £6,000 in fees annually will be obliged to meet obligations to make sure students from poor backgrounds are not deterred by fees as high as £9,000 a year.

The higher education minister, David Willetts, has already written to the Office of Fair Access asking it to draw up plans requiring universities charging more than £6,000 to set out schemes to ensure poor students are not priced out. The Willetts letter has been dismissed as vague by the National Union of Students.

However, the terms of reference of Hughes's appointment, released today, make it clear that the fundamentals of the trebling of tuition fees will not be open to any change. They state: "The advocate will focus on the effective communication and delivery of the government's policy programme, within the current budgetary parameters." Hughes is to be asked to prepare an initial communications strategy by the end of January.

But the terms of reference suggest his policy input may become more open ended, as they also state he will be asked to "develop with the government, particularly the Department for Education and the business department an engagement strategy which will allow young people to input into policy development on access to education".

His appointment will be for six months and he will report to the social mobility task force.

In accepting the post, Hughes did not pretend he could reopen the fundamentals of the tuition fee deal. He said: "Parliament has settled the maximum university fee level in England from 2012 and we now have a critically important task to ensure that every potential student has access to all the facts about the costs, benefits and opportunities of further and higher education.

"I will work with every person of goodwill to ensure that from 2011 we have the best system of educational advice, information and support in place, designed to benefit all potential students and to ensure that disadvantaged young people increasingly gain access to further and higher education."

Hughes risked the wrath of his local Southwark constituency party when he defied its call to vote against the rise in tuition fees, and instead abstained.

Before the vote he had been influential behind the scenes in pressing for a broader access package for disadvantaged children.

The appointment represents a personal political risk for Hughes as he is likely to be lambasted by Labour for taking up an appointment to sell such an unpopular policy that he had found impossible to support.

Labour sources said that it is a Conservative-led government that has trebled fees, propped up and supported by Lib Dem MPs and that no amount of window dressing can change the fact that these Tory policies will damage the least advantaged students and young people.

Labour claims Cameron is also developing a habit of hinting at policy U-turns, such as over school sports funding or Bookstart, but failing to come up with any specifics.

In his letter of appointment the prime minister told Hughes: "In the heat of the recent debate some of the elements of the package have been obscured and there is a material risk that young people – particularly those from disadvantaged groups – may be deterred from applying to university (or continuing their studies to gain university entrance qualifications) as a result of being misled about those financial impacts of the package."

Cameron said this risk applied especially to those aged 15-16 who will make decisions in the coming months on whether or not to stay on for A-levels.

"For them to be deterred from entering university as a result of misinformation would be a tragedy for them."

Coalition sources claimed Hughes has the political credentials to communicate government policy and reassure poorer students that the rise in tuition fees should not deter them from applying to elite universities.

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