It is possible to argue that today’s Spending Review announcement hasn’t been as bad as it could have been for widening access to higher education. In the run-up to today, many expected that the funding HEFCE provides universities and colleges to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds would be cut deeply.


Many also expected to see the demise of the £150m National Scholarship Programme which, despite only being introduced last September, has indeed been a victim of the cuts. So it might surprise some to see that the NSP won’t be completely scrapped, but reduced to £50m and reprioritised around postgraduate students.


So overall, is this a good settlement for widening access and participation?  As is so often the case, only time will tell.  Based on what we’ve heard today, we did a rough-and-ready sketch of how investment to support disadvantaged students could play out over the next few years.  It only highlights quite how much we don’t yet know, and quite how much remains to be decided.




Firstly, there’s today’s announcement that £45 million will need to be cut from HEFCE’s teaching budget in the next spending period.  On top of that, BIS still has £1 billion to shave off its existing spending settlement by 2014/15 – to be found wherever ministers feel they can make savings.  We can expect them to scrutinise existing levels of WP funding as part of this.


The Government is not the only source of investment in widening access to HE.  Universities and colleges re-invest a portion of their tuition fee income in this as well – taking the total expected support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to around £1bn in 2013-14.  We’ve included this institutional spending in our chart alongside direct Government funding, using data published by OFFA on the commitments made by institutions in their access agreements up to 2016-17.


Looking at the solid lines on the chart, it’s clear there has already been some rearrangement of the sources of support for disadvantaged students over the last few years.  Thinking about what’s been thrown into the mix today, we might be in for further rearrangement as we try to join the dotted lines.


In fact, all we can be certain about at the moment is that direct Government investment in access and widening participation is going to fall – largely because of today’s announcement about the NSP.  Beyond that there are many questions.  Will Government expect universities and colleges to fill the gap by investing more student fee income – as has been the trend in recent years?  What will happen to NSP match funding – currently eligible as part of overall access agreement spending?  Here the most recent trend has been downward.  Will we expect to spend less overall – and with what consequences for social mobility and the distribution of human capital?  How will the sector balance its spending between outreach (mainly paid for out of student tuition fees) and funding to support student success and retention (mainly paid for by HEFCE – at least for the time being)?  And will some institutions feel this harder than others?


The Spending Review prompts as many questions as it provides answers for the future of WP spending and activity.


Nick Johnstone – Senior Policy Advisor, GuildHE

Post by this Author:

Share This