Short-term workers and those receiving jobseeker's allowance should have university fees waived in 'enrol for free' scheme, say modern universities group
Anthea Lipsett guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 24 March 2009 10.40 GMT Article history
The unemployed and those on short-term contracts should be allowed to take part-time university courses for free, vice-chancellors urged ministers today.
Jobseeker's allowance claimants and those forced to cut their hours because of the recession face upfront tuition fees of several hundred pounds a year if they decide to study for higher education qualifications part-time.
Million+, the group representing post-92 universities, is arguing that claimants and short-time workers should have their fees waived.
This would cost the government £400m but it estimated that savings on benefits and the extra taxes paid by more skilled employees could produce revenues of £523m.
The ability to enrol in university courses for free should be part of the standard offer available through Jobcentre Plus, the group says.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said: "If the UK is to avoid a cycle of long-term unemployment the government will have to look beyond short training courses if it is to improve the re-employment prospects of those with lower qualifications.
"'Enrol for free' would have the advantage of providing individuals with improved prospects of future employment and earnings.
"It would also have the added advantage of building the high value skills for the economy and society of tomorrow on the basis of investment today.
She said the government would be "foolish" and "unwise" not to fund the initiative.
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We strongly believe in the power of education to change people's lives and the government needs to put education at the heart of any plans to help us get out of the recession.
"In tough economic times people need access to qualifications that will really make a difference to their lives and career prospects, and are relevant to their needs.
"There is a lot of government rhetoric about the need for the country to provide high-skilled workers and qualifications.
"'Enrol for free' represents an opportunity for government to clearly demonstrate its commitment to preparing that high-skilled workforce it has told us this country needs."
Aaron Porter, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said: "In the current economic climate, it is absolutely essential that we provide support to those people who need to learn new skills in order to find work.
"Increasing opportunities to access university for those on job seekers allowance would not only be of great individual benefit, but would also be in the long-term interest of our economy."
Fiona Weir, chief executive of the Gingerbread charity for single parents, said: "Many single parents have aspirations to access higher education and improve their careers.
"This proposal would start to break down the barriers they face in accessing university.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Universities, Industry and Skills said: "We know that the route to long-term recovery is investing in the development of our workforce which is why the government is spending £4.7bn on adult skills this year and has put in place a substantial package of additional training.
"This package includes a further £83m for 75,000 high quality training places in colleges, and £140m to create 35,000 apprenticeship places in 2009-10."
An extra £50m has been made available for universities to help both employers and employees, she added.