‘The Hughes Report’: Lib Dem MP’s 33 recommendations to improve access to higher education

by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2011

Last week saw the publication by Simon Hughes, the Government’s advocate for higher education access, of his report for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister on how more young people can be encouraged to apply for university. It’s received little attention, perhaps understandably given the current frenetic news cycles — but it’s a shame because the report is a serious piece of work.

Though 45 pages long in total, it presents clearly, readably and concisely 33 recommendations designed to ensure that everyone, from young to old, has the chance to experience higher education. You can read the report in full below, but there are five aspects which struck me as worth highlighting:

  • Importance of early years: the report recommends that, from primary age onwards, ‘schools can play an important role in motivating children to think about their future career and start working towards achieving their dreams’. These range from work experience opportunities to, in particular, ensuring proper advice is available at age 13-14 ‘when a young person starts to make the choices of courses influenced by the qualifications they hope for and the careers they plan.’
  • Financial education for young people is vital: Simon points out that the decisions made by 13-16 year-olds ‘will have large scale effects on their future finances, whether choosing higher education, leaving school at 16 and going to work, or going into apprenticeship or training. They are expected to take these decisions at the same time as taking into account future earnings, money management during their courses and, in the case of higher education, knowledge about the system for paying for their degree.’ It’s a big ask, and Martin Lewis’s efforts at MoneySavingExpert.com — and in particular his work to present the ’20 key facts’ about tuition fees — are particularly welcomed.
  • Call to action for all leaders: Simon notes: ‘When they have explained to them accurately the monthly repayment which graduates will be required to pay under the new system for student finance, young people and their families are almost always greatly reassured and encouraged about the benefits of going on to university.’ Critics of tuition fees (such as Simon) can and will continue to oppose the Coalition’s policy; but they should avoid the language of scare-tactics which risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. There is a responsibility for all — political parties, student leaders, unions — to show leadership here. Though the tribal, knee-jerk response of University and College union general secretary Sally Hunt (“What exactly is the point of this report?”) suggests this hope may remain firmly aspirational.
  • No populist attacks on universities: in contrast to David Cameron’s over-compensating tendency ignorantly to slam the UK’s top universities for ‘disgraceful’ admissions processes, Simon’s approach is more measured (and accurate): ‘Although there has been a marked increase in the number of people from poorer and non-traditional backgrounds attending university over the last five years, universities can still do more and the most selective universities can do much more.’
  • Guaranteed scholarships for bright, low-income students: This is the recommendation which has, rightly, received most attention: ‘If 10,000 scholarships from the national scholarship programme were allocated [to a certain number of students in every secondary school, sixth form and FE college who satisfied a minimum UCAS tariff points score and who came from a family with an income below a certain level] then every school and sixth form and FE college could have on average three scholarships available to them.’ While all universities offer financial aid to students, the amount is only known once their application has been successful — merit-based, needs-based scholarships which underwrite students’ access to universities could make a huge difference to students considering applying to university.

The Hughes Report