Hundreds of students will be paid £20,000 a year to study for a degree under a groundbreaking deal agreed between a top university and one of the country's largest graduate recruiters.
Under the scheme, students will also have all their tuition fees and accommodation costs taken care of. The scheme, which has been agreed between leading management consultants and accountants KPMG and Durham University, is expected to expand.
Under the agreement, 18-year-olds will sign a six-year contract. For the first four years they will split their time between university and the company's London offices, culminating in the award of a BSc in accounting. The students will then be guaranteed two years of work with KPMG – ending up with a salary of £45,000 a year.
In the first year, 75 students will be registered for the scheme but KPMG is planning to expand it to 400 students a year. Durham is already in negotiation with a leading bank and insurance company to mount a similar programme, while KPMG is in advanced negotiations with other universities.
Oliver Tant, who is the UK head of audit at KPMG, said of the student participants: "Assuming they don't buy a Porsche early on, they aren't going to come out of this arrangement with too much debt. I think this will become a blueprint not just for this industry but other professions and businesses."
The deal has been under negotiation since before the Coalition Government announced tuition fees would rise to between £6,000 and £9,000 a year from September 2012. Mr Tant acknowledged it would be a boon to those who found the level of debt they could face "intimidating". Surveys have shown students of the future could be leaving university with debts of up to £80,000.
Some organisations, like the Ministry of Defence, fund students through university but do not also pay them a full salary. KPMG, which recruits up to 1,100 graduates a year, believes it will provide the firm with more experienced graduates.
Mark Protherough, executive director at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), said: "I can't emphasise too much how radical this is. The model for the rest of the world is typically for a four or five-year accountancy degree from which you then become a chartered accountant."
KPMG is seeking to recruit youngsters from more disadvantaged backgrounds to sign up for the scheme. It is discussing the programme with 20 schools that have an above average take-up of free school meals among pupils to encourage youngsters to apply for it. This will expand to 200 as the number of students grows.
KPMG is planning to encourage the schools' most gifted youngsters to consider this option from early on in their secondary school career.
The scheme has already received a blessing from Universities Secretary David Willetts. "I warmly welcome this initiative as it provides a new entry route to a prestigious profession for people from a wide variety of backgrounds," he said.
"I hope other employers and universities will study the concept carefully. It's the kind of initiative that we hope will flourish as we reform higher education."