NIACE welcomes BIS’s annual grant letter to Hefce

27 January 2012

NIACE welcomes the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ continued commitment to the premium universities in England receive to engage students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as confirmed in its annual grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce).

The premium supports institutions in meeting the additional costs associated with attracting and retaining students from non-traditional backgrounds. Simon Hughes MP, the government’s Advocate for Access, and the BIS Select Committee, have both underlined the importance of the targeted allocation for widening participation, amid fears that it could be scaled down or abolished. NIACE is pleased to see it retained alongside the National Scholarship Programme.

The letter confirms an £830 million (18 per cent) reduction in universities’ teaching grants and the provision of £3.6 billion in up-front student loans in 2012-13, the first year of the new HE funding arrangements. It also details a reduction in the total number of student places of 5,000 and confirms that the 10,000 additional entrant places made available for 2011-12 would not be repeated.

The letter includes no new announcements about the ‘unconstrained recruitment’ of students achieving AAB grades or above at A-level, though there was a pledge to ‘monitor the impact of the new approach and its effect on supply and demand’.

Such an assessment is welcome. NIACE advises against any further interventions in student number controls until the impact current reforms have on student enrolments is clear. It is critical also that the impact of changes elsewhere in the system – for example, the introduction of Level 3 loans in further education and the restriction of entitlement to face-to-face careers guidance – are properly understood before further reforms to the system are implemented.

Paul Stanistreet, NIACE Policy Lead for Higher Education, said:

“The government’s decision to retain the widening participation premium is undoubtedly a piece of good news and underlines the unfeigned commitment of ministers to keeping widening participation and social mobility at the heart of their programme of reform.”

“However, there are real concerns that these good intentions could be seriously undermined by patchy and untargeted information, advice and guidance, poor communication about the new loans system, both in FE and HE, and the policy to allow unlimited recruitment of students achieving AAB at A-level.”

“This may make it more difficult for mature students who have come to higher education by a non-traditional route to gain a place at a leading university and could lead to students from disadvantaged backgrounds being concentrated at less prestigious and less well-resourced institutions.”