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UK: Funding cuts hit the Open University

The Open University is set to lose millions in funding if the Government presses ahead with plans to change its spending policy on students. And thousands of part-time mature students will be left without funding from 2008.

As the biggest provider of part-time higher education for mature students, the Open University (OU) will be the worst hit of British universities but others – including Birkbeck College, London, and the largest adult education organisation, Niace – will also be affected.

They are united in calling for the policy to be withdrawn, or at least modified.

Professor David Vincent, OU pro-vice chancellor, told University World News: “This is the most significant change in funding in a generation. We are deeply concerned about its impact on the part-time sector and the agenda for lifelong learning. We have to undo that decision.”

The campaign began after John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, announced in September that from 2008-09 he would phase out funding for the majority of students in England and Northern Ireland who were studying for a degree equivalent to, or lower than, a qualification they already had. These ELQs, as they are known, include graduates studying an undergraduate course or those taking a second degree.

More than two-thirds of ELQ students are over 35, and most will have degrees that need updating, while 25% are taking undergraduate qualifications in mathematics, science and technology – subjects highly prized by the government.

Denham explained to the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) that he wanted to spend more on students going into higher education or who were progressing to higher qualifications, and he expected employers to contribute more to graduate development.

In a briefing note, the OU says HEFCE figures indicate that more than a quarter of its students, 29,000, will be unfunded from 2008-09 and £31.6 million, or 19% of teaching funding, will be phased out from that year.

“We could be faced with an effective real terms cut in HEFCE funding of £11 million in 2008-09 rising to £19 million in 2010-11,” the university says.

Vincent also pointed out that the policy shift ran counter to the recommendations of a government-commissioned review of skills by high profile businessman Lord Leitch. His report, published last December, concluded that Britain needed to double its attainments at most skills levels by 2020 in order to match the top performing countries in the world.

Adults had to play their part in improving their skills, Leitch said, with government, employers and individuals sharing responsibility to achieve this goal. The Secretary of State agreed, saying that “every second one of us must make up our skill lack for Britain to succeed”.

The OU note asked why one group of students had to be denied public support to benefit another group, as the saving constituted only 1.4% of the DIUS budget for higher education? And why did the government think employers would pay more as only 17% of OU students received any help from employers?

Implementing the ELQ policy would result in a massive increase in bureaucracy: checking existing qualifications, determining their status and interpreting funding rules came at a time when the government and HEFCE were committed to reducing the red tape burden on institutions, the university said.

“There is, in any case, a major question about whether this policy can be implemented, given that there is no long-run national database that will enable universities to detect students who fail to disclose their prior higher education qualifications.”

The DIUS has called for consultations to conclude on 7 December. Higher education institutions are currently working hard to change Denham’s mind.
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