The pressure on academics to ensure that all their students complete the full course each year will be dramatically eased after a decision by funding chiefs to abolish the heavy penalties for institutions with high student dropout rates, writes Tony Tysome.
Universities that open their doors to large numbers of non-traditional students, more likely to drop out or fail to complete the full study programme in the expected timeframe, were delighted this week at reforms to the funding system announced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
English universities currently lose a year's money for any student who does not complete the whole course for the year, even if they fall short by a single module. But from 2009-10, institutions will receive some funding for students who do not manage to complete all their planned study modules in a particular year.
The move follows a second round of consultation by Hefce on its plans to revamp methods for funding teaching.
In a new report on the outcomes of its consultation, Hefce says it has decided that, from 2009-10, it will support flexible study patterns.
Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said: "This move is very welcome, because if you are recruiting widening-participation students, there is a greater propensity for them to move at a different pace than traditional students."
Under the new system, students must complete a fixed minimum proportion of the year in order to gain funding, and the funding awarded for students who have only partially completed courses will be capped to ensure that there is still an incentive to prevent dropouts.
The report says: "It should be noted that it will remain more cost-effective for institutions to retain their students, particularly given that students who do not complete their initial study intentions will not attract targeted allocations."
Hefce's two-year teaching funding review is also expected to eventually lead to new funding weightings for subject areas.
The funding council is still reviewing data it has gathered from the sector to help it devise a transparent approach to costing teaching (Trac), which is expected to lead to a report next year on plans to provide different funding levels to different subject areas.
Commenting on the plans, Campaigning for Modern Universities chief executive Pam Tatlow said: "The funding council may at last be starting to address some major issues raised by the tendency to judge costs on the basis of full-time 18-year-old students."
But she added: "The devil will be in the detail, and none of this should detract from the need for further public investment in the unit of resource for teaching."
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