Grants lobby refuses to die

June 18, 1999

Phil Baty looks at academics' response to a THES poll on how Labour policies are faring

Academics have overwhelmingly rejected the government's decision to scrap student grants, warning that hardship is damaging students' academic performance.

A massive majority of 96 per cent of academics in universities and colleges polled in a THES survey said maintenance grants should be retained for poorer students.

This flies in the face of the government's decision to scrap the grant and extend the loan system, announced in defiance of the 1997 Dearing report, which said that grants should be retained as tuition fees were introduced.

Feelings are running high over the issue: 82 per cent of the 400 academics polled across the country said they "agree strongly" that maintenance grants should be retained, while just 1 per cent strongly disagree. Senior staff, lecturers and researchers were near unanimous in calling for the maintenance grant to be kept.

The news comes as academics continue to warn that student hardship is damaging academic performance. Of those polled in higher education, 86 per cent said that hardship is damaging performance, with the lead taken by those with the most direct contact with students - 91 per cent of lecturers agree with the question.

The proportion concerned about the damaging link between hardship and performance is largely unchanged since the last similar THES survey in 1996, when 89 per cent said that student financial hardship was damaging academic performance.

The Department for Education and Employment defended the abolition of grants. "Our student support changes recognise the need to help poor students: they have access to larger loans which are only repaid after they have left university or college, and the repayments are linked to earnings. Students are getting money when they need it. It is a fair system, and students can see that."

The DFEE spokeswoman also denied there was problematic student hardship:

"There is no evidence of widespread hardship," she said. "The money available to universities and colleges has increased substantially. This year's access funds have doubled to Pounds 44 million."

She said a new DFEE research project on student income and expenditure was underway, but its author, Claire Callender of South Bank University, has already called for further research into the effects of funding changes on access. "This study's remit is only current students," Professor Callender said. "It cannot capture those who decide not to go to university because of changes in student funding. Surely that is where research also needs to be done."

National Union of Students president Andrew Pakes said: "It's good that academics recognise the effect hardship has on studies, at a time when education is in a massive state of change with huge numbers of part-time and mature students.

"But it is disappointing they are focused only on grants as the way to provide money for poorer students. Grants belong to the 1960s when they were used to support the elite university system. NUS wants to see a mixed system of funding: housing benefit, income support and a real injection of cash into further education."

The survey revealed a mixed response to other key government initiatives. In further education colleges, there was widespread support for the government's plans to meet higher education growth targets through places in FE rather than universities. More than half of college staff strongly agree with ministers' plans to expand higher education at sub-degree level in colleges. Overall, 82 per cent agreed.

But the higher education sector is divided over ministers' plans to increase vocationalism in universities. Only 48 per cent agreed that higher education courses should concentrate more on preparing students for jobs, compared with 47 per cent who disagreed.

Researchers most strongly agreed that courses should be more vocational, with 55 per cent support, compared with 49 per cent of senior staff, and 43 per cent of lecturers. A significant minority in both colleges and universities supported controversial proposals to lower entry requirements for students from lower socio-economic groups as part of a drive to widen access.

In colleges, 23 per cent agreed that "entrance requirements should be less stringent for students from less well-off backgrounds", compared with 19 per cent in universities. However, a clear majority in both sectors disagreed strongly with the idea.

There are splits over how higher education should be funded. In the 1996 survey - on the eve of the government's decision to introduce tuition fees - a majority of 71 per cent of academics said that students should not contribute to the cost of tuition.

But now that the issue is a moot point, academics accept that the controversial policy will lead to more positive attention to students' needs: 60 per cent agreed with the statement: "now that students pay fees, universities will be more responsive to their demands."

Senior staff were more convinced, with 65 per cent agreeing, while lecturers were just slightly more cynical, with 61 per cent.

In keeping with views held in 1996, academics are clear that they do not want top-up fees. A majority of 68 per cent said universities should not be allowed to charge top-up fees, in line with government policy. Lecturers were more emphatic in rejecting top-up fees: 76 per cent disagreed with the principle (44 per cent disagreed strongly), compared with 61 per cent of researchers who disagreed and 59 per cent of senior staff.

There was less certainty over differential fees between different courses. Fifty-nine per cent disagreed with the principle, but most believed that differential fees will be introduced anyway: 72 per cent said that it was likely that differential fees will be introduced in the next five years.

But the sector is divided on higher education's growing reliance on private income. In 1996, a majority of 64 per cent in higher education said universities and colleges had benefited from an inflow of commercial funds. Researchers agreed more strongly than others, but lecturers agreed more than senior managers.

In 1999, however, after three years of growing commercial activity, the sector faces a dilemma. Almost half of respondents to this year's survey believe that the inflow of commercial funds to universities compromises their academic freedom.

Lecturers are split, while 45 per cent of senior staff are concerned about damage to academic freedom. Researchers were split 60:40, with the majority believing that commercial funding does not compromise academic freedom.

But suggestions that the sector should concentrate resources with a move to a new binary divide - concentrating research funding in the top research institutions, and leaving teaching-based institutions to get on with teaching - was heartily rejected.

Seventy-two per cent rejected the statement: "Only departments that score highly in the research assessment exercise should be funded for research, leaving the rest to concentrate on teaching".

The idea is more unpopular than it was in 1996 when it was rejected by 64 per cent of academics. In 1999, more than half of all respondents disagreed strongly with the idea. Lecturers were most vociferously opposed, with 57 per cent disagreeing strongly with the idea, but senior managers were similarly unimpressed, with 47 per cent strongly disagreed.

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