Sir Christopher Snowden, the University of Surrey vice-chancellor, urged the chancellor not go ahead with scrapping the £322 million student opportunity fund that supports the poorest students.
The Treasury is reportedly pushing for the fund to be scrapped, as it forces the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to make cuts to atone for an overspend.
For the UUK president to warn against cuts to student opportunity funding may be significant. The Russell Group of research-intensive universities, whose institutions gain only small amounts of the funding, has not offered any public support for the funding stream – instead seeking to defend the research budget against potential cuts.
“Just as other countries are increasing their direct contribution to funding universities, the coalition government is thinking about doing the opposite,” says Sir Christopher, writing in the Daily Telegraph in an article that appeared online this afternoon.
The UUK president blames the hole in BIS’s budget on the department’s “miscalculations about the costs of uncontrolled expansion by private (including for-profit) higher education institutions”.
He adds: “This has been exacerbated by higher than expected spending on grants for students from low-income backgrounds – because universities have been surprisingly successful in attracting them.”
Sir Christopher calls student opportunity funding, which supports access and retention for groups such as disadvantaged or disable students, “a smart use of public money”.
He adds: “We know that about a third of productivity growth between 1994 and 2005 was due to the growth of graduate skills in the labour force. Our economy needs more skilled graduates from a wider range of backgrounds. So it would be economically short sighted to reduce support for teaching low-income students.”
On other potential cuts to remaining direct funding for teaching, Sir Christopher says: “There is also a threat to support for high cost subjects and other essential, targeted funding.”
He concludes: “Economic growth will be the most important issue in the forthcoming general election. The chancellor must step back from forcing the business department to go through with decisions that will cause such damage to universities.”