Which gives disadvantaged young (or older) people the better chance of wanting to do a degree and actually getting one – George Osborne’s commitment to taking the cap off full time undergraduate numbers in the Autumn Statement? Or the £330m Student Opportunity (SO) budget? I don’t know the answer (and neither does he) but I think it’s important to ask the question in these terms.

It’s also important because Osborne and David Willetts both see that increasing numbers overall is a good thing for the economy. Willetts also sees it as the only way of achieving growth in very low participation areas such as his own constituency of Havant (participation rate 23%). He’s rightly made a great deal of this in his pleas for a Robbins style expansion of undergraduate places.

So we might ask the same question in the context of Havant or indeed Southampton Itchen next door – with a participation rate even lower than Willetts’ constituency at 22% – where John Denham has his own ideas about funding the system overall and for the recruitment of disadvantaged students. Amongst many other ideas, he recommends a ‘student premium’ – a principle (and ultimately a pot of cash) that looks and works very much like the pupil premium in schools. Of course that was a Liberal Democrat idea and that in itself has always made their lack of interest in something similar for HE all the more puzzling. Note that it appears to be Danny Alexander and Vince Cable who don’t seem much taken with keeping the SO budget (or indeed expanding higher education at all).

The DFE website says this:
‘The Pupil Premium is additional funding given to schools so that they can support their disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap between them and their peers. In 2014-15, the funding will rise to £2.5 billion, with £1300 for primary-aged pupils, £935 for secondary-aged pupils and £1900 for all looked after children, adopted children and children with guardians.’

Surely the same principles apply? There is an attainment gap and support in HE (and in FE) costs just as much as in schools. And £330m isn’t a lot compared to £2.5billion.

Some have argued that WP cash is ‘double dipping’ i.e. universities already get the funding through tuition fee income and this just provides cash for doing the same thing. Geoff Layer – VC at Wolverhampton, where half of the students are from less well-off families – has argued that this is only like the principle behind HEFCE QR funding for research and also that it pays for a whole range of very different things.

Let’s go through some of the details. First, SO funding assumes – like the pupil premium – that institutions should be incentivised to take poorer students in the first place and paid more to teach them as well as retain them through to graduation. Many bring extra costs – one to one support, special educational needs, living, study or transport costs that they can’t meet. There are a whole bunch of other things that SO funding does – not least collaboration with schools and colleges and outreach that provides information and raises aspiration in places like Southampton and Portsmouth as well as in Wolverhampton.

All of it could go.

But it’s fair to say that there is still an access issue and that the universities who don’t do particularly well at recruiting the more disadvantaged students should still be required to do better. But those whose mission rests on WP or SO aren’t going to abandon their commitment to more disadvantaged students of all ages. It’s simply too important to them. And they know what works – in their own classrooms as well as in the schools and colleges in their communities. So if SO does take the massive cuts that are being discussed they should at the very least be able to decide what to prioritise. That includes the spending on Access Agreements and the targets agreed with OFFA and also their continuing part of NSP spending (another Lib Dem idea). That way at least we get to save the best things that work – as well as recognise the expertise and missions of the institutions concerned.

But it would be much better if politicians realised that this is spending that helps deliver on things that matter to them. Social mobility, improved employment and productivity, the attainment gap between rich and poor (people and places).


Andy Westwood – CEO