“Student Opportunity” funds worth £332 million have been provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to universities this year to support their work in attracting and teaching students from disadvantaged backgrounds, down from £366 million in 2012-13.
Hefce was told in this year’s June Spending Review to cut a further £45 million in 2015-16 by “re-prioritising” the teaching grant allocated to universities, which includes Student Opportunity funding that was previously known as the “widening participation premium”.
However, “there have been strong indications in recent months that the Student Opportunity allocation…will bear the brunt, and possibly the entirety, of this reduction,” according to a report by million+, which represents post-1992 universities, and the outreach organisation, the National Education Opportunities Network.
Such cuts would be a further blow for funds supporting the poorest students after it was suddenly announced this week that £100 million in cuts to the National Scholarship Programme were being brought forward by a year.
The loss of £45 million of widening participation funds – a 13.4 per cent cut – would “cast serious doubt on the Government’s commitment to social mobility,” the report says.
“It would not be possible for many institutions to absorb such a reduction in income without their work in this area being seriously affected, with significant consequences for the access agenda,” it adds.
“Any move to reduce this successful area of funding would cast doubt on the sincerity of politicians who, while supporting social mobility in speeches, would in practice be cutting funds that make a difference,” said Michael Gunn, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of million+.
The report, titled Student Opportunity Funding: Why It Counts, published on 28 November, highlights the fact that more than half of Hefce’s widening participation funds go to post-1992 universities, whose students tend to come from more diverse backgrounds.
It also highlights some of their uses of the funds, including student employability schemes, disability support projects and school outreach initiatives, following criticisms that many universities did not provide evidence for their use of the money.
The report calls for the Treasury to view student opportunity funding as an “investment” in the workforce, which promotes social mobility, rather than seeing it as a “cost to be minimised”.
“Any move to reduce or replace Student Opportunity funding would result in a less effective system and leave both individuals and taxpayers worse off over the long term,” said Graeme Atherton, director of NEON, who co-authored the report.