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Start early for higher study

Rees report calls for more investment to support prospects for poorer pupils. Karen Thornton and Nicola Porter report

More investment is needed in early-years education if more young people from deprived communities are to attend university in later life, according to the Rees review.

The long-awaited review into tuition fees says that most young people who achieve the necessary qualifications for higher education do go on to university, regardless of their background.

The problem is ensuring that more children from deprived areas do well enough in school to complete A-level or equivalent studies.

Professor Teresa Rees, who chaired the Welsh Assembly's independent review of student fees and support, said its members had examined research suggesting that the likelihood of a child going to university could be determined by its social and economic circumstances at 18 months old.

She told TES Cymru: "If the plan is to have more people going into university, you need to invest in education and wider social support earlier on - pre-primary early years, and not just at secondary-school level."

The Rees review, published yesterday, says the Assembly government should commission a study of 15-year-olds' attitudes towards university, and devote more resources to earlier education, "including projects aimed at raising aspirations and improving university readiness in areas of low participation".

However, as TES Cymru went to press, it was unclear how much of the Rees review will be acted on. It favours variable tuition fees of up to pound;3,000 a year from 2007, which students would pay back after graduation once they are earning a reasonable salary.

But following a heated and passionate debate, Assembly members voted against top-up fees on Tuesday - two days before the review was published.

Speaking after the debate, ex-Labour AM Peter Law said: "This was all about principle, something Welsh Labour abandoned when it promised not to introduce top-up fees in 2001."

It is not yet known how the Assembly government will respond to the no vote. But opposition party leaders have called for joint talks and education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson has said they will be held soon.

Conservative leader Nick Bourne has called for fresh proposals on student finance, but said any attempt to introduce top-up fees for Welsh domiciled students would be opposed.

However, universities in Wales say there is no other way to plug a widening funding gap in the sector, and fear becoming poor relations to their English peers.

Katherine Cleary, spokesperson for Higher Education Wales, which represents Welsh vice-chancellors, said: "We urgently need a solution to the funding problem, especially for 20067."

The Rees review considered a "no-fees" solution but ruled it out, in part because Wales would end up subsidising the education of "fee-dodging" students from other parts of the UK. However, it leaves open the option of Welsh students being charged less than English ones. And it proposes that the poorest students should be supported by a bursary scheme.

But a decision on whether sixth-formers starting courses this autumn should have to pay extra fees halfway through their studies has been left to the politicians.

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