The Prime Minister recently called on universities to increase the number of students recruited from disadvantaged backgrounds and diverse communities. We at the University of Wolverhampton agree with his aspiration.
Over the last few years at Wolverhampton, we have grown our undergraduate student population. With one of the highest proportions of students from working-class backgrounds in the UK and an excellent track record in helping our students to secure graduate employment, we believe that it is vital that everyone has access to education in order to fulfil their potential.
The removal of student maintenance grants and their replacement with loans could have a significant effect on those from low-income backgrounds, and we need to clearly manage the potential impact on these already disadvantaged groups.
We would have anticipated that at least 70 per cent of our new full-time students would have been expecting to receive some form of maintenance grant this September. Now they will not. They will have been building for some time towards applying and entering university, but now, towards the conclusion of that process, the government has moved the goalposts.
Any university that has been involved in doing the heavy lifting of widening participation will say that it takes time to build aspirations, and last-minute changes do not help. It is true that the government has created a facility in which students can borrow more money to cover living costs, but our concern is that students from low income groups have less flexibility in financial planning and may be less able to address such changes.
We believe that education provides the best means of increasing social justice, social mobility and economic growth, which is why it is important that financial support should not be a barrier to participation. During the last three governments, we have seen a shift from the state to the individual to pay for the costs of higher education on the basis that it is the individual who benefits, although there is a very strong argument that state investment in higher education is a public good.
We believe that it is unfair that the government made these changes midway through an application cycle. Students have not been able to make as informed a choice on facts and evidence as we would all wish. Unfortunately this has happened time and again over the past few years.
This is why at the University of Wolverhampton, working with our students’ union, we have taken the decision to provide a £1.2 million fund to support all new full-time undergraduate students joining us in 2016-17, as we want to make sure that the impact of a late change is reduced. The fund will provide a direct financial contribution to provide additional help for students during this period of change and this is our way of trying to help mitigate the new funding arrangements, to pay for the expense of that study.
It is vital that we keep providing opportunities for people from low-income groups and keep the cost of study as low as possible. The size and scale of the household pay packet or the circumstances in which people are born should never be the defining factor when it comes to accessing higher education and having the chance of greater social mobility.
Universities serve their communities and we all have a duty to do all we can to keep education as an achievable reality.
Geoff Layer is vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton.