Leading Article: Students' forum is put to the test

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The Independent Online

The Government's student listening campaign is an admirable attempt to delve into the student mind and find out what is bothering today's undergraduates and postgraduates. It is a brave move because ministers could find themselves having to deal with a lot of flak, but it is also imaginative because it shows that politicians, whatever we think of them as a tribe, do try to put themselves in others' shoes. They know that students are demanding more from higher education in this era of fees – and that it is often difficult for them to know where to turn with their complaints about teaching or university facilities or accommodation woes.

The fact that it has appointed a minister for students shows that the Government means business and the appointment of Maeve Sherlock to be chairman of the National Student Forum is inspired. As former chief executive of the Refugee Council, she won respect for keeping government ministers on their toes, choosing her fights carefully and making her arguments stick. If she can do the same in her £5,000-a-year job at the student forum, we will all have cause to be grateful to her.

The acid test of her effectiveness will be whether the Government is persuaded to act on her annual report. Introducing her last week, John Denham, the Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said that the student forum should not be an institution that "gets captured by the system". He is right. It is vital that the forum does not disappear inside Whitehall. Therefore it needs to operate in the public eye as much as possible, so that students' concerns get the coverage they deserve and universities are forced to act.

One of the most interesting issues thrown up at the student jury in London last week (see Diary, left) was the student loan form, which was described as too complicated. The Ucas representative agreed. Talks have been taking place between Ucas and the Student Loan Company to try to get it changed – to no avail. Until now, such an issue has not been publicised. Once it is, we hope it will be treated with urgency.

One danger is that the new consultative apparatus will focus too much on student poverty to reflect undergraduates' concerns. Another is that the forum will be overly political. Sherlock's job is to make sure that it isn't.

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