Short-term policymaking risks jeopardising efforts to widen participation in English higher education, it has been warned, after yet another change in the national approach to encouraging those from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to university.
A new four-year initiative, the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), was announced last week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, inviting bids from university-led consortia for intensive access activities in areas where enrolment is lower than expected.
But Times Higher Education has learned this means that direct funding for the existing National Networks of Collaborative Outreach (NNCO), which aimed to provide all secondary schools and colleges across England with a single point of contact for outreach and to coordinate collaborative outreach with universities, will not be renewed beyond this December.
The networks had been funded for just two years, with the end of support echoing the axeing in 2011 of Aimhigher, the national access scheme, which, like the NNCO decision, came soon after a change of government.
The launch of the NCOP brings with it significantly more funding: grants of £30 million will be available in 2016-17, rising to £60 million from 2017-18, compared with the NNCO’s £11 million annual budget.
But questions have been asked whether more organisational upheaval gives English universities the best chance of meeting Prime Minister David Cameron's target of doubling the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education by the end of the decade.
NNCOs will be eligible to bid for the new fund, and Hefce believes that they could be strong candidates; but the more targeted nature of NCOP funding means that some networks will be better placed to take advantage of the new scheme than others.
Graeme Atherton, head of London-based NNCO AccessHE, said that there was a risk of a “loss of momentum” in widening participation.
“We have spent two years building up a basic infrastructure of NNCOs and not building on that further runs the risk that we have to start again on building consortia and hiring staff, which would really stall progress in a short-term time frame,” Dr Atherton said. “To achieve the prime minister’s goals, we need to work quickly, and to do so we need to be mindful of what already exists to support that.
“You cannot just ratchet up the activity overnight; the money is very welcome, but we want it to be used effectively, and to do that you need infrastructure, people and relationships.”
A review of the first year of NNCO activity, published in February, found that the short lifespan of funding had been a significant challenge to the networks’ effectiveness.
Chris Millward, director of policy at Hefce, said that the vast majority of outreach funding, such as that delivered by universities as part of their access agreements, continued to be spent on long-term programmes.
But he said that there was a need for a “targeted and tailored” approach to meet the government’s goals.
“Based on existing participation patterns, the targets are not going to be hit, so we do need to make an intervention,” Mr Millward said. “We have a clear evidence base, where we think we can make a difference quickly.”
NCOP funding will be awarded to consortia for two years in the first instance, with a further two years of funding available if satisfactory progress is being made.