Student Opportunity Fund threatened with closure by Coalition

David Kingman reports on the proposed threat to the Student Opportunity Fund, which could have a damaging impact on social mobilityEducation Costs

The Student Opportunity Fund, a £327 million pot of money which is used to assist higher education institutions with recruiting and retaining students from deprived backgrounds, could be in danger of being abolished completely in order to close the budget deficit within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), according to reports.

If it was implemented, this move could have a potentially disastrous impact on the number of students from poorer backgrounds who go on to university, making a nonsense of Coalition claims that their reforms to higher education won’t harm social mobility.

Why is the Student Opportunity Fund being threatened with closure?

According to the Guardian (see above link), the Student Opportunity Fund is being threatened with closure in order to address the annual departmental deficit at BIS. This is reported to stand at £80 million during the current financial year, and has been forecast to rise to £330 million by 2015–16, largely because of the additional liabilities the department has incurred through enabling more students studying at private higher education institutions to receive government-backed student loans (private providers were initially allowed to recruit as many government-funded students as they wanted, with no cap on numbers, which led to a big increase in costs for BIS).

In attempting to deal with this deficit, cutbacks worth £25 million have already been announced to the Access to Learning fund, which provides financial support to students facing financial hardship (such as those with children or who find they can’t afford a place to live) who need extra help to begin, or remain enrolled on, a higher education course. A further cutback worth £100 million has also been taken out of the national scholarship programme, a fund which provides cash grants to higher education students from deprived areas.

It was initially thought to be the case that the Coalition was thinking of cutting £200 million from the £327 million Student Opportunity Fund. However, it appears that, following internal debates within the Government, this target has now swollen to include the entire fund, although this move is apparently opposed by higher education secretary David Willetts and BIS secretary Vince Cable.

How does this threaten social mobility?

Since the end of the Second World War, higher education has been seen as a key tool for increasing social mobility, and all the more so in our modern knowledge economy. Most white-collar occupations now require some kind of higher-education qualification as a prerequisite, so going to university is more or less a must for anyone who aspires towards a middleclass standard of living.

Such large cutbacks to the parts of the BIS budget which are supposed to be used for widening participation will surely result in fewer qualified students from deprived backgrounds attending higher education.

A spokesman for the Open University gave a clear statement of the OU’s views to the Guardian:

“Social mobility is central to the government’s ambitions and the OU’s mission, so it is deeply concerning to see reports that funding for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds may be cut. The OU is incredibly proud of its track record of helping these students realise their potential and go on to make a strong contribution to the UK economy. The prime minister and his cabinet colleagues must be careful that any spending decisions will not reduce the life chances of the most vulnerable in our society.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) has also launched a campaign protesting against the proposed cuts to the Student Opportunity Fund. NUS president Toni Pearce said the following:

“Cutting the Student Opportunity Fund is an absolute disgrace and, in the wake of cuts to the National Scholarship Programme, looks like the Government is backtracking on its commitment to support social mobility in favour of balancing the books on the backs of the poor. We already know that young people from the most advantaged neighbourhoods in England are still three times more likely to enter higher education than those from the most disadvantaged. Unfortunately, the Government’s sustained attacks on our education system do nothing to help young people with the financial practicalities of staying in college and moving onto higher education.”