Outreach funding made a priority

April 2, 1999

Funding chiefs have been urged to pour millions of pounds into helping universities reach out to under-represented groups, following a new report that warns that institutions have cut back on such activities.

Pressures on institutions and their staff have caused a serious decline in outreach work, and the level of activity has been reduced "to zero in many cases", according to Stephen McNair, head of education at the University of Surrey.

Professor McNair's report, which was published this week, focuses on the Higher Education Funding Council for England's funding programme for courses that do not lead to recognised higher qualifications.

It calls on HEFCE to strengthen its long-term funding for outreach work. Professor McNair argues that such activity, seen by access leaders as an essential part of widening participation in higher education, has been neglected in the past after ministers opposed mainstream funding for non-award-bearing courses. It is also unlikely to be helped by HEFCE's present formula for widening participation.

As of this year, HEFCE will encourage institutions to enrol students from under-represented groups by paying a premium for each such student. The money to widen participation is tied to full-time students under the age of 25. Meanwhile, money for continuing education is tied to the number of students enrolled on accredited courses leading to an award.

As a result, long-term community-based efforts - such as outreach activities to local schools, further education colleges and the community - have suffered.

Professor McNair's report suggests that in creating the non-ward-bearing continuing education programme, which ran from 1995 to 1998-99, HEFCE "implicitly accepted the notion that there was valuable work in higher education which was not adequately recognised by formula funding". The programme funded a series of projects to help support liberal adult education.

The report recommends that HEFCE should strengthen its long-term funding for outreach activities through a separate funding stream, similar to the old non- award-bearing programme but worth much more money.

In the next few weeks, HEFCE is due to announce the outcome of its consultation on widening participation. Many of the responses are thought to support a substantial increase in funding to support partnership activities.

"We are planning to extend non-formula funding for widening participation this year to build links between higher education institutions and schools, colleges and the wider community," said Cliff Allan, head of teaching and learning policy at HEFCE.

Mr Allan added: "Our key aim is to increase the recruitment and retention of students from under-represented groups, primarily through formula funding but also through a complementary special funding programme to support partnerships, innovation and development work."

Up to a third of the extra money for widening participation could be allocated through special funding.

But Professor McNair warned that establishing a separate fund risks dividing higher education into tiers.

"There is a question of how far widening participation should be part of the mission of every institution and how much institutions should specialise," he said.

"The danger is that some institutions do well in the research assessment exercise and specialise in research, and others do well at widening participation and specialise in access. If we go too far down that road, we get a two tier system of 'traditional' and 'access' institutions, offering non-traditional learners a parallel, but perhaps lower status range of opportunities."

HEFCE said that its strategy was to recognise diversity and to encourage all institutions to widen participation.

"The funding method rewards those institutions that do well and encourages others to do better," said Mr Allan. "Even research-dominated universities rely on teaching money."

The McNair report also looked at liberal adult education, and a two-day seminar has been convened later this year on the subject.

"HEFCE felt that there was sufficient ministerial interest in the need for a contemporary interpretation of liberal adult education," said Michael Richardson, of the University of Cambridge, who is organising the seminar. "This initiative is very welcome news indeed."

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