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In a week when the government reshuffled its cabinet, HE issues that made headlines gave the newly-appointed universities minister a taste of things to come, says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers .
The past week’s events and news are a sign of turbulent times for UK universities, warns Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University.
Mike Ratcliffe, academic registrar at Nottingham Trent University, reflects on issues emerging from a packed week of higher education news.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education has reported almost a 21 per cent rise in the number of complaints it received from students last year – rising to their highest ever level at 2,371.
Universities will continue to use more than half their access funds on bursaries and fee reductions for disadvantaged students despite pressure to switch the funding to outreach, new figures published by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) show.
A total of £399 million or 53 per cent of the £750.8 million earmarked for access agreements for 2016-17 will go on financial support.
The projected figures for overall spend on access show universities will spend 2.1 per cent more in 2016-17 than planned for 2015-16.
Means tested bursaries and fee discounts bring the average fee paid by students down from £9,000 to £8,303 at University of Nottingham, for example, £8,416 at the University of Hull and £8,476 at the University of Sheffield.
The continued financial support is likely to be even more welcomed by students in 2016/17 when the present non-repayable maintenance grants of up to £3,475 a year are scrapped by the Government.
Universities have been urged by OFFA to rebalance their expenditure away from financial help and towards outreach to schools, supporting disadvantaged undergraduates in their studies and helping them to progress to employment or further study.
OFFA reports that there has been a three per cent drop in the proportion of access funds devoted to financial support but it remains the largest spend category. Of this, 87 per cent will be bursaries and scholarships and seven per cent will be spent on hardship funds – up from 5 per cent in 2015-16. Fee waivers will continue to represent six per cent of the spend.
Outreach to schools will cost £149.3 million or 19.8 per cent of total access funding, £148 million will be to support students through their studies and £54.6 million on progression activities to help their transition to work or further study.
Professor Les Ebdon, the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said the new access agreements showed that universities and colleges were setting stretching and ambitious targets to attract and support students from disadvantaged areas.
"Our discussions and negotiations with universities and colleges have led to improved targets at 94 institutions. These new targets are evidence-led, strategic and deliverable, and I look forward to working with universities and colleges to make further, faster progress," he said.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust said the access work being done by universities could become increasingly important as maintenance grants disappeared. “However, it is vital that we do more to evaluate how this money can be most effectively spent and ensure that enough is invested in reaching young people at school or college when they are making vital decisions about their futures,” he said.
The Russell Group said its universities would be spending 32.6 per cent of the additional fee income between £6,000 and £9,000 on access compared to the 24.1 per cent average across institutions. However, Dr Wendy Platt, its director general warned: “Increased regulation of universities will not resolve the real long-term challenges – namely under-achievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree courses.”
OFFA said the guidelines on the proportion of additional fee income spent on access vary according to the number of disadvantaged students universities already attract. Those educating high numbers of disadvantaged students are expected to spend at least 15 per cent on access compared with 30 per cent for those with low numbers and 22.5 per cent for those with average intake.
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