Protect the premium

Les Ebdon tells the government to keep its hands off the widening participation funding - it's too important to lose

January 12, 2012

Just over a year ago, Vince Cable, the business secretary, and David Willetts, the universities minister, were crystal clear in their message that funding for widening participation should be "a top policy priority".

In their grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 20 December 2010, they stated that a key focus of Hefce's targeted funding for universities should be "supporting widening participation and fair access".

But roll on to 2012 and, despite a series of measures to control spending on the student loan book, government officials say that money is tight. Some siren voices argue that Hefce's targeted funding for widening participation, commonly known as the widening participation premium, is no longer required in a world of deregulation and market forces.

The abolition or scaling-down of the premium is one bullet that ministers should not bite - however tempting it might be as part of efforts to balance the books. It has been a key component of Hefce's targeted funding for many years, and its distribution across the sector illustrates its significance to many institutions.

Universities with more socially inclusive student profiles receive more funding via the premium than institutions with less diverse student bodies. In some cases, the premium represents more than 5 per cent of a university's current teaching grant - a proportion that reflects the success of the university in attracting students who might otherwise not have had the opportunity to study for a degree. For the coalition government, with its professed commitment to social mobility, this is just how it should be - even though the premium does not even meet the full costs of the investment required to ensure that students from less advantaged backgrounds (who often enter university with lower pre-entry qualifications), students with disabilities and older students, who often need childcare, are supported to be successful in their studies.

Willetts was absolutely right to state in Parliament in July last year that the widening participation premium was "in many ways ... the equivalent of the pupil premium in schools". Why would a government that has supported the pupil premium be party to the abolition of its equivalent in universities? Moreover, the amount of funding a university receives via the widening participation premium is decided using a formula that is far more sophisticated and effective than the measure of free school meals, which is used to determine the pupil premium.

In some quarters, the purpose of Hefce's premium is being confused with the access funds that universities will spend via the Office for Fair Access' new access agreements. These access funds are primarily for scholarships, bursaries, fee waivers, outreach activities, partnerships and emergency welfare funds. Their provision is a condition of charging higher tuition fees, and they are designed to mitigate the effects of higher fees for both full-time and part-time students, as well as the withdrawal of funding from the national outreach initiative Aimhigher. Access funding may also provide fee waivers for sandwich courses and support for work placements in the UK and internationally. It is funding that is primarily derived from fee income and will be paid for in the future by graduates.

So access funds are no substitute for the premium provided by the funding council. The Hefce premium supports outreach work but, primarily, it provides additional funding to meet the costs of teaching students from widening participation and non-traditional backgrounds once they have entered university. This is why it is much more akin to the pupil premium in schools and why it is just as important as the additional funding required for the teaching of strategically important and vulnerable subjects.

A week is often said to be a long time in politics. Let's hope that a year does not prove too long for ministers to remember their promise to make the widening participation premium a "top policy priority". They would do well to start the new year by reiterating this funding commitment.

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