A new twist has developed in the on-going university tuition fees saga, as accountancy firm KPMG has announced plans to cover the cost of university fees for its future trainees. When university tuition fees rise sharply to £9000 in 2012 under the new coalition government’s education policy, the firm will cover the cost of a four year degree course for those selected for its school-leaver entry scheme.

The 400 places on the entry scheme could eventually all entail free tuition, in a move that the firm claims will become a “blueprint” for schemes from similar companies. Immediately following the government’s withdrawal of a fee waiver scheme for free school meals pupils, it promises to provide a welcome boost to fair access to university education for those from all backgrounds.

As Oliver Tant, UK audit chief for KPMG explains, the generous allowance will enable the firm to continue to select the very best and brightest candidates at school-leaver level, regardless of their social or economic background or their ability to afford the sky-high new tuition fees. This will be particularly relevant at a prestigious university like Durham, where high demand for places is likely to enable the institution to charge close to the top threshold of £9000 tuition fees per year. Hence the firm has pre-empted the extremely likely outcome of the rise in tuition fees; that students from the poorest backgrounds will be forced to apply to less prestigious universities where fees will be lower, thus graduating with a less impressive degree than their peers and disadvantaging their application to the firm at graduate level.

Whilst there are potential problems with the scheme (such as whether their assessment of school leavers will be fairly weighted to take into account the greater opportunities private school pupils will already have had even at that stage) it seems fair to be cautiously optimistic that it could represent a huge boost to fair access to university, especially in the wake of the government’s abandonment of the Education Maintenance Allowance and Aim Higher scheme.

Unsurprisingly, Universities minister David Willetts has been swift to jump on the bandwagon, hailing the plan as “the kind of initiative that we hope will flourish as we reform higher education,” as if to suggest that the government is in some way responsible for this private lifeline amidst the sea of their decimation of higher education access. Rather ironic, since KPMG explains that they were forced to adopt the plan in the face of the “intimidating prospect” that enormous new student debts could lead to crippling “social immobility,” preventing the company from sourcing the brightest, most talented candidates rather than simply those able to afford to continue into higher education at the new, sky-rocketing costs.

However unsavoury the reasons necessitating the new scheme, it does seem to be a great opportunity for fair access; starting from a universal entry point and circumventing the thorny issue that the new tuition fees may well discourage the most disadvantaged students from applying for top university degrees and consequently from achieving the most prestigious positions in top UK industries. KPMG must be applauded for their drive to open access to their training program to students from all backgrounds, and they are also carrying out a scheme in 200 schools with the highest percentages of free school meals pupils, to encourage the brightest pupils to consider the opportunity from an early age. They appreciate the quality and value of selecting their workforce from the most diverse possible social and economic background to truly find the very best candidates; a luxury many industries will no longer be able to enjoy as £9000 tuition fees start to drive brighter, poorer students out of higher education.

The key questions now are whether other major UK businesses will indeed follow suit, as the government so desperately hopes they will, to help redress the access balance, and if so what impact the schemes will have on the available places and price of tuition fees at the universities involved.

For the slightly unusual aspect of the KPMG plan is that tuition is not awarded for any university at which a candidate chooses to study. In fact a specific deal has been struck with Durham University, where students will study a special 4 year course, dividing their time between university and the KPMG offices. If many top corporate firms follow suit, this may cause more access problems than it solves, if precious places at the most prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are available to be bought in bulk at a premium for corporate trainees, reducing the availability of places for other students across the board.

This could be the beginning of the privatisation of higher education that many feared would be the consequence of the government’s new tuition fees policy.

Another issue is the bias that would be created should such schemes become more common amongst top graduate employers, as there would be a severe knock-on effect on funding for less vocational arts and humanities courses, with students tempted to turn to corporate funding rather than study the degree they are most suited to or would most enjoy.

How the government might address this problem remains to be seen – at the moment they seem to be more interested in grasping with both hands this opportunity to allow somebody else’s innovative access schemes cover their own gaping mistakes.