On Wednesday, the Chancellor delivered his Autumn Statement and Spending Review, setting out the Government’s spending priorities over the next five years. This includes cuts to most central government departments, including BIS. Although The Open University receives the majority of its funding through student fees, direct government funding for certain activities is nonetheless an important revenue stream.
Some of the announcements made by George Osborne support part-time higher education, and acknowledge the contribution it makes to the economy in terms of upskilling the national workforce and driving social mobility.
There had been speculation leading up to the Review that the Student Opportunity Fund, which supports widening participation among disadvantaged and disabled students in England, could be severely reduced or possibly cut altogether. In the end, the Government decided to retain this funding, although it has tasked HEFCE with reducing and retargeting it, focusing on “those institutions with the most effective outcomes.” The OU has said it will work with HEFCE and the UK Government to demonstrate how it will deliver against these aims.
Other measures announced by the Chancellor included:
- A consultation on the introduction of new part-time maintenance loans in England from 2018-19 to support the cost of living while studying
- Further relaxation of the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rules to allow students in England studying a second degree in all STEM subjects access to funding from 2017-18
- Lifting the age cap on new loans to postgraduate from 2016-17 to cover all students in England under the age of 60 and those studying at a distance; however, this does not include those studying below 50% intensity
Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, welcomed the measures announced by the Chancellor, but looked ahead to the challenges of attracting disadvantaged students to higher education with reduced funding:
This Spending Review offers a number of positive changes to our sector, and I welcome the increased emphasis on part-time study. More concerning, however, is the spectre of substantial cuts to the Student Opportunity Fund, which is key to supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is absolutely critical that this money is put to the best possible use and goes to those institutions with the biggest impact in this area. We look forward to working with HEFCE and the Government to make sure this important fund continues to support those who need it most.
The OU will continue its work to promote the benefits of part-time study across Westminster. This includes working to avoid any unintended consequences in the development of the apprenticeship levy, ensuring the obligation on employers to spend their skills budgets on apprenticeships must not be to the detriment to other forms of in-work study, such as part-time higher education.