Do you believe in lifelong learning enough to donate pay to the Kennedy bursary scheme? Helen Hague examines its achievements so far
THE first person to benefit from from Baroness Helena Kennedy's commitment to widening participation - single mother Maria Williams - is now poised to take her first-year exams for her degree course at Nene College in Northampton.
The pound;1,000 bursary has made it possible for Maria to study full time as she is able to pay a childminder to look after her two-year-old son, Daniel.
The 19-year-old law and pschology student who has had to take out the maximum student loan of pound;3,000, has no regrets about her decision to pursue her studies.
She says: "I'm doing this for both of us. I never thought 'Oh I've got a kid now I'll forget about studying' but lots of people do and that's a shame.
"The bursary came as a complete surprise - it was nice to think someone had recognised that the money would help someone like me."
Maria was 16 when Daniel was born. She got GCSEs and was determined to get more qualifications, but could not stay on at school. She enrolled at Milton Keynes College and took A-levels in government and politics, psychology and communications.
Ann Limb, then college principal, wanted to get up a fund helping FE students keen to progress to higher education, but facing difficulties.
Then Lady Kennedy launched the bursary scheme at the Association of Colleges annual conference last November. Her report Learning Works highlighted the financial obstacles preventing many students from getting a degree.
Other students are now following in Maria's footsteps. Application forms have now been sent out to colleges for the next academic year. Students are being asked to say what difference the bursary would make to them by a deadline of the end of April.
More than pound;40,000 has now been raised to fund further bursaries - around pound;5,000 from individual college principals and senior managers. Lady Kennedy has appealed to heads and governors to donate their earnings from the last hour of the last day of 1999 to the fund. She has estimated if all comply that pound;40,000 will be raised which could be matched by private donations.
Ann Limb, who is now principal at Cambridge Regional College, hopes that pound;20,000 will roll in by the end of the year - and that the example of people who work in the sector digging into their own pockets will encourage corporate sponsors to match the money. Lady Kennedy has recently written to colleges urging them to rise to the challenge and donate between pound;20 and pound;100 to the bursary scheme.
Ann Limb is buoyed up by early responses. "We are already seeing that people in the sector are prepared to support a cause that they very much believe in.
"These students need to be supported particularly because of the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants. This is really reducing the numbers of largely poor, working-class, black, disabled and mature students from moving onto higher education.
"Some are exempt from tuition fees, but it's often those who are just above the poverty line who are being deterred by the additional costs of studying."
By making the awards, the scheme's trustees hope to raise the profile of those who make the transition from further to higher education. Or as Ann Limb says: "We are trying to promote lifelong learning. Even if you feel the system has failed you, you can get on the ladder to university."
The scheme has a development council in place and aims to raise pound;250,000. By November, Ann Limb said she would like to report that it has grown to between pound;100,000 and pound;150,000.
The bursary awards are timely, chiming with the Government's agenda of widening participation and combating social exclusion. Tony Blair would like to see 50 per cent of people with degrees, equipping the nation with a highly-skilled workforce.
To achieve, this Ann Limb believes, much of the expansion into HE will come from the FE sector, with many students talking programmes part-time. This challenge will be good for colleges. There are, she says, many more HE students in colleges than people generally understand.
Ruth Silver, principal at Lewisham College and a scheme trustee, has asked every member of staff and governors, college lawyers and accountants to consider giving half a day's pay to the fund. The college recently scored a full house of grade 1sfrom inspectors.
She says: "We've got a saying at Lewisham - access, success, progress. Kennedy is not about dumbing down, it's about lifting up.
"It's about getting people into the higher echelons of academia, if that's where they want to go. This scheme will help people achieve that. Which is why it's got so much support from people who work in our sector."