Prospective students have not had much good news of late. But the announcement that the accountancy firm KPMG plans to sponsor students throughout university deserves a cheer.
Yesterday KPMG announced a scheme that will pay the tuition fees of 75 promising A-level students and give them a salary of £20,000 over a further two years of professional training after graduation. The company intends to expand the scheme when tuition fees triple from 2012.
There is much to welcome here. Business is one of the main beneficiaries of an expanded university-educated workforce. It should be footing a greater proportion of the costs. Taxpayers have long made a hefty contribution to meeting higher education costs. So will students from 2012. It is right that the spotlight should now fall on business.
KPMG also sees the scheme as a way of ensuring that it continues to employ a socially diverse workforce. The firm's head of audit, Oliver Tant, argues that "social immobility" in Britain has become a source of economic inefficiency, and one that threatens to cede an advantage to the more meritocratic China and India in the globalised economy. The scheme will therefore be heavily advertised in state schools that have an intake of children from poorer homes.
Mr Tant also hopes to establish "a new trend of the private sector helping to meet the costs of tertiary education", implying that other large firms will follow KPMG's lead. We must hope so, because there are considerable social benefits to be reaped from an expansion of such scholarship schemes.
One of the great fears about the impact of higher fees is that they will deter students from less advantaged backgrounds from applying to university, even though fees are not repayable until, and if, a graduate goes on to earn above £21,000 a year. The existence of sponsorship schemes such as this will help to reassure talented prospective students that university will be a sound financial investment in their future. Some firms already sponsor students. But these typically only cover the final year of university. To maximise the incentive, such schemes should begin while students are still in school.
There are some caveats. It is possible to imagine poorer students being lured into signing up to an accountancy career, or some other profession, when they are not sure about what they want to do with their lives and later regretting it. A student's ambition when they are 17 is often very different by the time they are 21. Similarly, no one wants to see poorer students corralled into sponsored professional courses, while the humanities become the exclusive preserve of middle-class students.
Alternatively, things could swing the other way. There is a potential danger that scholarships could be dominated by students from wealthy backgrounds. Mr Tant might see the scheme as a way of bringing out the talents of children from poorer homes, but KPMG is not guaranteeing a bias to those from low-income families when it comes to the selection of trainees. Yet there should be ways of guarding against such outcomes, such as ensuring that student contracts are not binding and encouraging universities to provide humanities scholarships to counteract the pull of the business variety.
Like higher tuition fees, this will be something of an experiment. But if implemented properly and with the correct safeguards, the benefits should significantly outweigh any disadvantages. The Coalition, widely reviled for tripling fees, can do itself a big favour now by putting pressure on other large firms to follow KPMG's forward-thinking example.