Formulaic distribution of funding council support for English universities’ efforts to widen participation is set to end.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England had already cut the widening participation element of its student opportunity fund by £14 million for next year, to £54 million, but now proposes to abolish it altogether in 2017-18.
Instead of receiving funding according to the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds that they have, universities would instead have to apply for support from the National Collaborative Outreach Programme, which was announced earlier this year. This will be worth £30 million in 2016-17, rising to £60 million, and will make university-led consortia compete for funding to deliver outreach activities in areas where enrolment is lower than expected.
The proposal is part of a broader shake-up of student opportunity funding, which will be worth £373 million next year but is expected to reduce in value by up to 50 per cent before the end of the decade.
In a consultation, Hefce says that it still proposes to distribute the portion of the fund that supports retention, worth £279 million next year, on a formulaic basis. But it will become a “student premium”, which will be more tightly focused on institutions with students who are judged to be at risk of dropping out based on their qualifications, age and background.
The funding council is also considering whether it should change the way that it distributes the element that supports disabled students, worth £40 million annually. Currently Hefce shares it out according to the number of undergraduates and postgraduates claiming Disabled Students’ Allowance at an institution; but, in light of the government’s decision to significantly reduce the availability of this support, the funding council says that it will consider whether it should draw on other data sources instead.
The reforms could significantly affect the funding base of universities that recruit a lot of students from disadvantaged backgrounds or do not attract large research grants.
But Chris Millward, director of policy at Hefce, told Times Higher Education that greater targeting would support universities making the greatest efforts on widening participation and would help to meet government access targets, too.
He said that this year’s grant letter from the government to Hefce “makes clear that the funding under the banner of student opportunity should reduce by up to half by 2019-20, so we will obviously be operating in the context of that advice.
“We are therefore targeting funding in relation to access activities on where we think it will make the most difference and, in relation to the student premium, on the institutions that are doing the ‘heavy lifting’.”
The consultation also asks for views from the sector about whether Hefce support for taught postgraduate teaching should be retargeted.