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Aimhigher brought down by coalition axe

A national programme that aims to widen participation in higher education is to be scrapped.

Speaking at a Universities UK conference in London today, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said funding for the Aimhigher programme will cease next year.

Mr Willetts said: “Aimhigher has assisted universities and schools to learn a lot about what works in raising the aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but we now need to use this knowledge to make much faster progress on social mobility.

“Spending on Aimhigher has fallen by 43 per cent since 2004. The introduction of the £2.5 billion pupil premium and the £150 million National Scholarship Programme give us the opportunity to take a ‘whole-of-education’ approach, starting much earlier and supporting pupils to turn school-based achievement into success at university.”

He added: “In the future, universities wanting to charge [tuition fees of] more than £6,000 will be required to participate in the National Scholarship Programme and will be monitored to ensure they enrol an increasing number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

In a statement, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says that the government will work to establish a new “framework” for widening participation, which will place more responsibility on universities.

It says Aimhigher will close at the end of this academic year.

Under coalition proposals to raise the cap on tuition fees, universities wanting to charge more than £6,000 a year will have to demonstrate their involvement in outreach initiatives and the National Scholarship Programme, which will target bright students from poor backgrounds.

“It is right that universities and schools have the freedom and flexibility to decide how to spend their resources in a way that offers the greatest benefit to their pupils and students,” the BIS statement says.

According to the department, Aimhigher received £136 million in 2004, but its annual funding is currently £78 million.

The programme is designed to raise the awareness, aspirations and attainment of young people through activities such as university taster sessions and summer schools.

Graeme Atherton, executive director of Aimhigher West, Central and North London, said the programme was a key part of the information, advice and guidance needed by young people, adding that over the years it had built up “a great deal of expertise”.

The idea that widening participation work could continue at the current level without a national scheme was “not valid”, he said.

Dr Atherton also asked what would happen in 2011-12, the year before new access agreements required from universities charging higher fees, are due to come into place.

Sir Martin Harris, director of fair access, said: “Aimhigher has played a significant role in establishing best practice and developing effective collaborative partnerships and it will be important that the lessons it has learned are not lost following its demise.”

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, claimed that ministers were sending the “miserable message” to students and their families that “rather than aim higher, they should aim lower”.

He said: "Attempts to triple tuition fees, slash education budgets, and remove the Education Maintenance Allowance from poorer college students whilst simultaneously pulling the plug on Aimhigher will give further cause to those who believe this government wish to restrict education to a narrow elite.”

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

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