Of all your endeavours as a new Minister of State one of the most important is creating a framework to encourage and sustain a system of mass high-quality higher education catering for about 45 per cent of the age group. This will only be possible if methods can be found for encouraging participation among groups whose involvement has traditionally been low.
It will not be easy to achieve this, particularly since the Government has decided to phase out student maintenance grants by 1999, and from 1998 to charge an annual Pounds 1,000 tuition fee to all students except the least well off. I know that you are now grappling with the totality of the Dearing report on the future of higher education, and in particular with how to increase the participation of young people from low-income homes, while at the same time asking them to contribute substantially more than their peers have for the past 30 years.
In your favour is the recognition that something has to be done about the financing of higher education, and that continuing to reduce public funding per student while attempting to retain high quality is no longer a sustainable policy. Mass higher education systems in other countries require a sizeable financial contribution from students and in turn they receive a substantial rate of return on their investment. But industry, commerce, local communities and society at large also benefit considerably from higher education; therefore it is right that a substantial proportion of the cost is met from the public purse.
The Dearing report advocates a range of measures to promote wider participation, particularly among the lowest socio-economic groups and from areas where participation in higher education is low or almost non-existent. But what no one seems to have realised is that one simple but major innovation could powerfully augment these measures and send a strong message that higher education is both an affordable and an engaging prospect.
The radical reform I have in mind is the establishment of a National Mentoring Service. This would involve carefully selected, trained, supported and properly remunerated student mentors from higher education institutions working with and alongside young people in schools, colleges and study support centres.
Such a service would serve at least three purposes:
* It would address anxieties recently expressed by employers, by bringing a new sense of relevance to the academic and vocational studies of the student mentors and extending and developing their core skills, especially interpersonal skills and communication abilities, as well as confidence and self-esteem. These skills would enhance not only their personal development but also their employability.
* Because the service would be based on a system of modest payment for mentors, it would provide an avenue of finance for students in higher education, thus helping to alleviate hardship resulting from the Government's proposals. The mentors could be employed on an annual basis and would offer four to six hours of tutorial support per week for 30 to 40 weeks of the year. They might also be able to offer extra support outside university terms and be remunerated accordingly.
These arrangements would enable students to concentrate on their studies and at the same time earn between Pounds 1,000 and Pounds 2,000 a year while undertaking challenging, interesting and educationally and socially worthwhile activity.
* The service would also make a major contribution to helping schools and colleges increase the number of candidates who achieve levels of performance above the CD boundary at GCSE. What is more, student mentors could support pupils with a range of differing needs outside the narrow confines of external examinations. These might include: pupils who have potential but lack home support, those who are failing to apply themselves, pupils who are doing well academically but lack confidence and a sense of focus, and those who are pursuing non-traditional options (for example, boys studying foreign languages and food technology, girls studying technology and physics).
Such a service, which could eventually involve up to 20 per cent of all full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students, could make a substantial contribution to raising educational standards as advocated in the White Paper Excellence in Schools. Its work would be overseen by a national steering committee, and each higher education institution would have its own "mentoring office", whose work would be co-ordinated by national offices in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London.
The establishment of a National Mentoring Service would be an exciting development which could engage the interest and commitment of students in higher education and tap sources of idealism, imagination and ingenuity as yet unrealised.
Most of these mentors could be drawn from those social groups whose participation in higher education tends to be relatively low, and they would act as role models, thereby helping to increase younger pupils' confidence, commitment and their expectations.
Surely this type of organisation would be worthy of the support of the Government, the Higher Education Funding Councils, local authorities, industry and commerce, the National Lottery, charities and voluntary groups?
In my view, it could offer benefits on four fronts: to the mentors themselves, to higher education institutions, to schools and colleges and to the community at large. It could transform the nature of higher education and establish a new partnership between higher education, schools and colleges.
If the concept of such a service commends itself to you, I would be delighted to expand on the proposals outlined.
With best wishes,
Alan Evans is research consultant to the School of Education, University of Wales, Cardiff.