In the face of harsh criticism over the elitist undertones in its recent decision to treble tuition fees and discontinue schemes like the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the Coalition government in the UK has now appointed Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, to a new role of advocate for access to higher education.
The move, backed by British PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg, is aimed at dispelling fears that the current educational policy will make it difficult for students from poorer backgrounds to continue in A-level education or apply to universities.
Acknowledging the presence of misinformation that might discourage these students, the Government now wants Hughes to devise an effective communication strategy around existing aid benefits so that students from low income families do not feel deterred from higher education by the prospect of heavy debt burdens.
Hughes is also commissioned to frame recommendations on a substitute policy for the abolished £560m EMA that had been subsidizing students above 16 and from poorer families by up to £30 a week. Earlier, the Government had decided to discontinue this allowance for new applicants starting January 2011 on the perceived premise that the subsidy was in reality benefiting a large number of people who did not need it and would have continued in education anyway.
Even as the Commons passed the decision to raise the tuition cap to £9000, it also made it mandatory for universities charging more than £6,000 to set out schemes to ensure that the deserving among poor students are not deprived of opportunities. Though the government instructions to the Office of Fair Access in this regard have been dismissed by critics as vague, Hughes in his new unpaid advisory role will also be looking at how exactly universities plan to ensure equal access. The leader will also advise on the future shape of the planned £150m national scholarship fund.
However, it has been made clear that the new appointment, for an initial tenure of 6 months, will in no way reopen discussions on, or revise the fundamentals already laid down regarding the pricing of university education in the UK.