By Claire West

Children on free school meals and other disadvantaged groups could get up to two free years at university under ambitious new proposals aimed at getting the brightest and best into higher education, The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable proposed today.

The idea is one of the initiatives the new £150 million National Scholarship Programme (NSP) might take forward to help improve access and social mobility.

The Government is determined that the poorest in society who have the ambition and aptitude to go to university can do so. To ensure the most beneficial initiatives are taken forward in the NSP a steering group has been set up, capturing a wealth of expertise from students to people with a proven track record in widening access.

The group will include Aaron Porter President of the NUS, Nicola Dandridge Chief Executive Universities UK, John Fairhurst, President, Association of School and College Leaders and Mary Curnock Cook Chief Executive, UCAS.

They have been asked to look at options for support which Universities wanting to charge over £6,000 would then be required to match fund, giving students as many routes into university as possible. The group will make recommendations in due course but two options they have been asked by ministers to assess following their first meeting include:

A first free year for disadvantaged students funded by their university with the NSP then funding the students final year, meaning that those who stay the course are rewarded.
A foundation or professional scholarship year to attract young talented people into the professions like law, medicine, finance and architecture who might have been badly advised on which A-Levels to study with fees waved for a foundation year to get them the qualifications they need. Both these proposals could potentially help support 18,000 students.​
The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said:

"For too long, too many doors of our universities have been closed to bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government is determined to throw them open.

"These proposals will ensure that the most highly selective universities are compelled to offer generous scholarships to gifted students from low income backgrounds."

The NSP will be matched funded by any university wanting to charge more than the proposed £6,000 basic fee, this will form part of their access agreements to ensure those institutions wanting to charge up to £9,000 make additional commitments to widen participation and access.

The Business Secretary Vince Cable said:

“We want as many students from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to go to university to have that life changing opportunity.

“The proposals we have set out today will help give poorer gifted students an extra incentive to go into higher education. We have also written to our universities and stressed that we will be looking to them to do everything they can to make sure they are attracting our brightest and best students, no matter what their background is.

“But we know that Government is not the only one with ideas so its right that experts, students themselves and universities should also set out other options which can break down barriers.”

The national steering group will meet for the first time on Monday 06 December where they will discuss the proposals. By 2014/15 the NSP will invest a total of £150 million a year in supporting poorer students.