Scottish funding chiefs are on the brink of a radical reform of the university funding system amid fears that English institutions are neglecting lifelong learning in pursuit of research cash.
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is considering a dramatic redistribution of student places among a series of measures designed to boost the status of the teaching funding system as an agenda-setting force.
The council believes that the dominant race for research cash has led to a tokenistic approach to widening participation and that changes to the teaching funding system in England have been too limited and too crude to force real change.
In Malta at the annual conference of the European Access
Network last week, John Pritchard, head of access at the SHEFC, said that the council was "very conscious" that funding for research is "such a driver".
He said limited additional funding premiums for recruiting non-traditional students in England are encouraging "gesture-like" responses from some universities, as institutions shy away from the perceived additional burdens of recruiting students from low socioeconomic backgrounds for limited reward, and focus on improving research performance.
Mr Pritchard said the problem had become "a real issue" that was dominating the SHEFC's fundamental review of the teaching funding method. He said that the SHEFC was looking at ways to bring more "dynamism" to the teaching funding system, to "engender real change" as part of the review. There was a growing case for a major redistribution of funded student places, he added.
The 2,000 extra funded places available to SHEFC this year were "peanuts", Mr Pritchard said, and the SHEFC was looking at "a more dynamic allocation of funding for funded places".
While Scotland has yet to introduce any form of mainstream recurrent funding for widening access, Mr Pritchard warned that the attempts by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to widen access through core support had a number of problems.
Weak data had hindered the system premium of funding in England, where students recruited from socially deprived backgrounds - defined by their postcodes - attract extra funding.
The HEFCE system, while providing some incentives to widen access with a welcome limitation on the strings attached, was based on data that was nine years out of date and too crude.
Mr Pritchard stressed later: "I do not want to be seen to be having a go at the English funding council, their system does have clear advantages."
But his criticisms were echoed later in the conference by Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster, who said in a keynote address that there was growing doubt that postcodes were effective.
"We need something slightly more sophisticated than this method," he said.
Tony Bruce, director of policy development at the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, told the conference that changes to the funding formula was the most likely way to give a strong sense of direction to university managers.
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