Norfolk academics fear for learners’ prospects

A dozen Norfolk academics have spoken out against the 'perfect storm' of government policies which they believe will harm the county's already under-achieving learners.

In an open letter to politicians, the 12 lecturers, professors, and course leaders say huge increases in tuition fees, cuts to further education funding and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) will discourage and disadvantage both young and adult students across the country.

But the academics, lead by Martyn Sloman, a visiting professor at Kingston Business School living in north Norfolk, believe the policies will be particularly harmful to this county, which they say 'has long been an educational under-achiever'.

The letter's signatories include seven University of East Anglia and two Norwich City College members of staff.

Last night Norfolk MPs defended the coalition's policies and described the letter as 'unhelpful' and 'one sided', insisting the government was working hard to help young people achieve their ambitions at the same time as tackling the country's spending deficit.

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In their letter, which Mr Sloman is to send out this week, the signatories, warn: 'Current coalition policies are primarily based on a desire to cut public sector provision without any comprehension or understanding of education or concern for the consequences for the learner. People who most need support will find it most difficult to get.'

Mr Sloman, who lives in Sharrington, near Holt, but works for Kingston University in London, said he and his fellow teaching professionals felt compelled to speak out.

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He said: 'What we have got here in Norfolk is the perfect storm.'

The academics say Norfolk traditionally has a low proportion of young people entering university relative to the rest of the country and the increase in tuition fees will 'act as a major deterrent' to those considering higher education.

Add to that the cuts to further education, which they believe is particularly important in rural areas, and the abolition of the EMA, and they believe 'the UK will fall behind in the global knowledge economy as our competitors invest heavily in their higher education sector and encourage student access from students across the world'.

But last night both Norwich North's Lib Dem MP Simon Wright and the Conservatives' Richard Bacon, MP for South Norfolk, hit back against the comments.

Mr Bacon said the country was having to 'dig itself out of an enormous hole' caused not only by mistakes in the banking sector but also because the previous government had been 'spending money like a drunken sailor' on many areas including education.

He said everyone was suffering as a result and it was 'not helpful' to see it as an attack on the entire public sector.

Simon Wright, parliamentary private secretary to the children and families minister, said: 'I'm disappointed by this one-sided critique of the government's approach to education which fails to recognise a wide range of new initiatives that will help many young people.'

He pointed to the pupil premium for schools worth �1b, new demands on universities to widen access for poorer students, the new 16-19 bursary fund for students facing financial barriers, and the 360,000 apprenticeships starting this year.

He added: 'I would urge young people to explore the range of options available to them and to aim high.'

But Mr Sloman and his colleagues believe the large number of small businesses in Norfolk means a reliance on them to provide apprenticeships and 'fill the employment gap' is 'folly'.

Last night, the UEA said it was working hard with further education providers in Norfolk to try to address the low-take up of higher education in the county.

Unlike a number of UK universities, including Bath, Warwick and Durham, it has met its target for increasing admissions of students from poorer families through summer schools, bursaries and by waiving fees.

A spokesman said: 'We are committed to ensuring that individuals from all backgrounds are able to fulfil their potential, and are determined to maintain the university's strong drive to ensure that potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds are encourage to seize the life-transforming opportunity that a university education offers.

'We would stress again that anyone considering university needs to look beyond the headlines at the finances involved. No-one pays back any contribution to fees until they are earning �21,000 a year. For those from poorer families, they will pay nothing like the full amount.'

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