National university access scheme under threat

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Image caption,
There are fears pupils from poorer backgrounds will be put university off by higher tuition fees

The national programme to get working-class youngsters into England's universities looks set to be axed in the coming shake-up of higher education, the BBC has learned.

The threat to the Aimhigher scheme comes as universities are set to treble their tuition fees to £9,000.

Universities minister David Willetts has argued that universities should run their own programmes to improve access.

The government said any changes would be set out in a coming white paper.

Aimhigher is a partnership of 2,500 schools, 300 colleges and 100 universities which attempts to raise the aspirations of low income pupils in the early years of secondary and final years or primary school.

Its work is thought to be particularly important as universities prepare to raise their tuition fees, because those from poorer backgrounds are thought to be less likely to take on larger student loans.

It runs summer schools at universities and one-day master classes given by university staff.

It also offers support to pupils and students seeking to overcome the barriers preventing them from progressing to good exam results and ultimately university.

In 2008-9 it made more than a million visits or contacts with 2,250 schools and 300 colleges.

However, the scheme's £100m annual government funding is only guaranteed until July 2011.

Mr Willetts was asked in a Commons question to guarantee the future of the scheme but would not do so.

Instead he said: "We will place on universities an obligation to achieve the things that were previously being achieved" by schemes like Aimhigher.

Universities themselves were best placed to work out how they could improve access for poorer students, he said.

"We are looking carefully at the best and most effective way in which that can be done, but it should be for individual universities to come up with their proposals for how they can best improve access," he added.

But the head of the Aimhigher scheme in London, Dr Graeme Atherton, said it would not be appropriate for universities to run access schemes themselves, especially in the light of the plan to replace government funding with tuition fees.

"The idea that universities can do it themselves is flawed. In 18 months' time the number of students they get will define the size of their institutions.

"Students need impartial advice and support."

On the expected cuts, he added: "The big fear is that this is happening quietly and the wider public/policy community is not aware of it.

"At the same time as trebling fees the government is set to end the national programme to help working-class young people get to university. This decision needs to be publicly debated and discussed."

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