Showman satisfies students

Once upon a time a Leicester schoolboy dreamed of going to Oxford University. Sadly, he messed up his application form and had to be content with Newcastle instead. Where is he now? Running the universities' admissions service, naturally.

This true story speaks volumes about Tony Higgins, the Oxford reject who went on to become chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. At the end of last month, he incurred the wrath of the Government after predicting that its plans to charge undergradu ates tuition fees from next year would lead to "an insane scramble for university places like there has never been before".

It was a typically robust comment from an ebullient and skilled media operator, which dramatised the plight of thousands of students who had planned to take a year off before starting their degree courses. While his motive was simply to alert the public to the consequences of the new policy, the

education minister responsible, Baroness Blackstone, was furious, accusing him of "irresponsible scaremongering".

Scaremongering or not, the result has been a Government climbdown. More than 19,000 gap-year students will now be able to stick with their plans without having to pay an extra #163;3,000 in fees. It may have cost millions in potential revenue, and done little to endear him to Lady Blackstone, but for Higgins's customers - prospective students - it was a victory.

According to his friends, the UCAS chief is deeply committed to helping young people make the right choices at what, as he knows to his cost, is a crucial point in their careers. Indeed, so concerned is he about the importance of filling in application forms correctly, he has even written a book on the subject.

It may therefore have been destiny that, after an early career as a university administrator, he was appointed in 1984 to set up a new admissions service for the polytechnics and colleges of higher education (PCAS).

Following the 1993 merger of PCAS with its long-established rival, the Universities Central Council on Admissions, he emerged to run the combined admissions service, having spent an uneasy year as joint chief executive.

Since his appointment he has established a reputation as a skilful handler of the media, with an entrepreneur's flair for promoting UCAS's public image (and, some would add, himself). Friends and colleagues use words such as "bullish" and "impetuous" to describe him, complaining (somewhat fondly) that he doesn't always think things through. But on important matters, and on issues which he cares deeply about, he is usually right. He is also prepared to stick his neck out, as he proved over fees.

He is a workaholic, rising at 5.15am and arriving home at 8pm (he commutes between Leicester and his Cheltenham office). He is said to take on an enormous workload, partly perhaps because he is not a natural delegator.

But he is popular with his staff. Once a year, he turns up wearing fancy dress for the staff charity day (an ardent rugby union fan, he likes to wear his Leicester Tigers' kit). Once, having learned that a colleague was planning to propose to a member of staff, he organised a forklift truck to be put outside her window so the would-be husband could make his avowal in style.

Something of a showman himself, his relatively high media profile may not have helped his relationship with Lady Blackstone, who renewed her criticism of UCAS on television last week, after announcing her climbdown.

The two do not know each other well. Their one meeting was inauspicious when, some years ago, she was invited to speak at a function in Loughborough. Through no fault of her own she arrived late, to discover that the meeting had been cancelled and that her journey from Cambridge had been wasted. Higgins was left with the task of consoling her over a cup of tea.

Nevertheless, any differences between the two are unlikely to be political. Higgins is known to be an enthusiast for Labour's plans to increase opportunities in further education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Baroness Blackstone may find she has common cause with the scaremongering man from UCAS over the months ahead.

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