Funding to help the poorest students that totalled £366 million this year “will go” under a future government unless the sector can demonstrate “return on investment”, the head of England’s funding council has said.
Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, made her comments on student opportunity funding at the council’s annual conference on 5 February at the University of London’s Senate House.
“It is entirely clear…that this will go unless we can demonstrate a return on investment that is really cogent,” she said.
Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, is said to have tried to scrap student opportunity funding in 2014 during talks about a gap in the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He is said to have described the allocation as a “slush fund” for universities. But the funding stream was spared after universities, including the Million+ group of newer institutions, lobbied to protect it.
The scheme helps universities to cover the extra costs of teaching students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with disabilities, and supports “work to retain students who may be less likely to continue their studies”.
Professor Atkins said that Hefce was working with economists “to think through what are the measures [of return on investment that] we can use on something like the student opportunity fund”. Hefce’s website says CFE Research has been commissioned to carry out two projects, one of which will look at the fund’s benefits “for individuals and their local communities, and the economy and society more broadly”.
Professor Atkins went on to say that “as we go into the [next] spending review period”, the sector may need to look at “outcomes that we know we need to improve…An example of that is the differential degree outcomes by ethnicity and by social class – a really unacceptable aspect of our system if we are claiming we are one of the best of the world.”
Hefce was supporting research on closing attainment gaps, she said, and “we will need to take that forward as part of any future argument to government for funding”.