When Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes abstained from the vote on tuition fees, he was appointed advocate for access to education and asked to compile a report of recommendations to smooth the pathway to university for the most disadvantaged UK students. Now published, the report contains thirty recommendations, including careers service that starts in primary school, and a special link between schools and universities. But Hughes stressed that the most important recommendation in his whole report was the allocation of three scholarships to every school in the country, to be awarded to their most deserving low-income students for university funding.

What would the scheme mean?

Hughes’s scheme would change the planned National Scholarship Programme by allowing schools, rather than universities, to allocate the awards of £3000 to bright students whose financial backgrounds would otherwise deter them from continuing to higher education.

He suggests that an early awareness of this scheme and the ability to apply from GCSE age would provide a lifeline for poor young people who would not otherwise consider applying for university and therefore would not make it as far as benefitting from the scholarships available at a later stage.

Hughes claims that there will be “enough money in the kitty” for each school in the country to provide three awards of £3000 every year to its most deserving students.

Would it work?

The scheme would certainly address problems of low application levels from certain schools in more disadvantaged areas where there is little or no tradition of university entry. Amidst the recent furore over low percentages of state pupils gaining places at top universities, elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge have argued that they cannot admit students who do not apply – and that not enough students from poorer backgrounds make that step. The scheme would hope to raise those numbers by showing students that there was a route to university that didn’t cost a fortune, even after £9000 tuition fees are introduced in 2012.

What is not clear is how the allocation of these scholarships would interact with other bursaries and awards available from specific universities and colleges; whether receiving one would exempt a student from applying for further financial support later on or whether it would be provided in addition to other resources.

Public response

Some critics have suggested that providing a standard number of three scholarships to every school in England could leave some with many more deserving students left wanting, whilst others may end up allocating awards to under qualified students if they did not have enough high achieving pupils to merit scholarships. Keeping the scholarships at university level as planned would ensure that the most gifted students were given the awards.

Meanwhile, protest groups and unions welcomed the tone of Hughes’s report and his suggestion of engaging with pupils and providing them with better advice from a younger age. However, they claimed that the gesture was “too little, too late”, and National Union of Students President Liam Burns described the report as “warm-worded but toothless”. Sally Hunt, of the Universities and Colleges Union said that “it’s hard to see that a report at this stage will have a real impact on the life chances of young people.”