POOR and disabled students could bring a cash bonus for the universities that recruit them next year, under plans discussed by the English funding council this week.
Extra money found by top-slicing the mainstream teaching grant and any future increase in government grant, could be channelled towards students or institutions that meet certain access aims.
But the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which drew up the plans for presentation at its annual conference, also stressed commitment to quality in a separate paper on rewarding excellence in teaching.
This idea, already suggested as a way of helping Oxbridge make up the money it could lose from removing college fees, would give out bigger cheques for the best quality teaching.
Quality is also a consideration in the Hefce paper on access, which warns that any premium for taking disadvantaged students "would need to be large enough to provide an incentive or a suitable recognition of success, but not so great that it distorted institutions' recruitment when demand from suitably qualified entrants remained limited".
While the funding council has not yet decided how much money to put towards the scheme, a senior Hefce official said there should be some support from government. "We would hope that the government would give extra money for favoured policies and widening participation is number one," he said.
Figures from Hefce, which is setting up a new statistical unit looking at the social and financial background associated with university studies, show young new university entrants vary in average wealth by nearly 60 percentage points between institutions.
The funding council has set aside at least Pounds 6 million over the next two years to help build partnerships between schools, colleges and higher education institutions aimed at making universities more accessible.
Its discussion paper on access suggests introducing a student-related premium, an institution-related premium or combination of the two.
Teaching grants already carry a premium for teaching part-time students or students in specialist institutions. Attempts to extend this policy to cover disabled students or those from disadvantaged backgrounds have failed until now because of problems identifying who they are.
But proposed changes to the Disability Student Allowance should make it easier to identify disabled students, while new methods of using postcodes to link students to neighbourhood type should help to find those from poorer backgrounds.
The paper suggests, however, that allocating extra money to institutions that can show successful strategies for widening participation rather than rewarding them for the students they attract would be less likely to distort recruitment.
Universities are expected to favour a combination of both policies, to give rewards for performance to date and encouragement to do more.
Teaching bonuses, page 8