Ministers and funding council chiefs were poised this week to give universities a £40 million funding boost to help cover the costs of teaching part-time students, writes Paul Hill.
Just weeks after the Government announced an increase in student grants for part-time undergraduates, the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England was due this week to sign off a £20 million increase in the "part-time premium" paid to universities to cover extra teaching costs.
It is understood that the Government has agreed to match Hefce's funds with an additional £20 million.
Ministers have been under pressure since the Higher Education Bill was passed last year to deliver on promises they had made while the Bill was going through the Lords stages to offer universities with substantial numbers of part-time students a better deal.
Vice-chancellors have warned in recent months that the market for part-time students is "too fragile" to bear a pro-rata increase in tuition fees in line with the rise to £3,000 for full-time students next year.
Last month, Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, announced that the Government would increase grants for part-time students by per cent and said that hardship funds would be quadrupled.
The details of the extra £40 million of funding were unclear ahead of the Hefce board meeting, but it is understood that the additional money would be divided between universities in line with the existing formula for funding part-time students.
Such a move would see the Open University and Birkbeck, University of London, take the lion's share of the additional funding.
In his evidence to the Education and Skills Select Committee last month, Sir Howard Newby, Hefce's chief executive, told MPs that "universities and colleges in general have shown a great deal of restraint over raising their part-time fees".
Sir Howard told the committee: "We know that the existing premium (paid to universities for part-time students) is below the cost.
"It is based on cost. It is not, as is sometimes speculated about, based on incentives.
"If you want to lose a lot of money, you can take in large numbers of part-time widening participation students.
"But we are looking at where we can take (the premium) nearer to what was identified in a study undertaken by Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) a few years ago on the cost of these students."
Sir Howard added that "in proportionate terms, a part-time student probably needs as much early mentoring and support - some people might say even more - than a full-time student".