Refocusing the Student Opportunity Fund

BME studentThe Prime Minister has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. His broadside in the Sunday Times is reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s assault on Laura Spence in 2000 which led to a foray in the press and accusations of old school elitism.

Although different parts of the university sector could readily score points off each other by contrasting their records in contributing to the PM’s goals on widening participation, the aims the PM has set ought to be shared, even if the means are not. The OU believes that collaboration across the sector, with each institution playing its part can achieve more than everyone adopting ritualistic positions.

The Government’s productivity plan, which the Commons BIS Committee reported on today, quite rightly highlighted the need to deliver a more highly-skilled workforce to boost productivity and household incomes.  Expanding higher education was listed as a way to achieve this – not only opening the door to more students who would otherwise be unable to study, but recognising the additional productivity and wage premium that comes with a degree.  This was followed up just recently in a speech on life chances by the Prime Minister, in which he said it was “time to build a more level playing field with opportunity for everyone, regardless of their background.”

So far, so encouraging. But unless the Government wants to wait many, many years for a return on their SOF investment (which I suspect they don’t), ministers must take one important factor into account: that the vast majority of our national workforce in 2020, and even beyond, is already in work or past the age of 18.  In fact, less than 10% of the 2020 workforce is likely to be made up of people who will graduate between now and then.

This means that if the Government is serious about developing a highly skilled and productive workforce in the short to medium term, they are unlikely to find the answer solely in the current batch of school leavers. Or the one after that. Or indeed any cohort of typical 18-year-old students over the next five years.  The best chance of achieving this ambition therefore lies in those institutions with students of all ages.  These also tend to be the same institutions who are able to widen opportunities to those who may have missed out in the past.

The Student Opportunity Fund is an important pot of money and has a key role to play in attracting and supporting the sort of students the Government has talked about encouraging into higher education. As the Whitehall and HEFCE decision makers continue their deliberations over how best to target this investment where Access Agreements and TEF can’t reach, it would seem the focus should be on supporting those institutions who are the workhorses of widening participation: those who attract and retain large numbers of WP students.

In terms of ensuring the SOF delivers value for money, it’s also worth looking at which institutions deliver the greatest value in terms of the student journey. By this, I mean those institutions which bring students furthest – from the lowest starting point in terms of prior attainment and largest barriers, through to achieving a good qualification and subsequent career progression.

The Student Opportunity Fund should be there to do what it says on the tin – provide opportunities for those students who need it most. The challenge now is to deliver reforms which balance the demands on the public purse, with maximising the potential of our students and our national productivity.

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