The recent Civitas report on care leavers presented a fascinating breakdown of the distribution of care leavers in UK higher education institutions – which is extremely uneven.
The report also highlighted the significant challenges care experienced people face in accessing and succeeding in higher education. Worryingly, similar to most other indicators of access and outcome inequality, there does not seem to be any meaningful progress towards closing these gaps.
There is also good evidence that interventions which target the financial insecurity many care experienced students face can effectively reduce these inequalities of access and outcome. And for this reason, many providers seek to offer direct financial support to help support their needs.
The actual definition of “care experienced student” – and it is worth noting that the government and regulator use different terms here – varies across the sector. As such the financial support available also varies from provider to provider, with different eligibility criteria being used.
In practice, this means that some care experienced students will have to decide about going to university based on whether a provider can offer them sufficient financial support. It could also mean that they are unable to transfer providers if they wish to.
Imagine, for a moment, if a disabled student who needed a British Sign Language interpreter was told by their first choice provider that they could only afford to fund the interpreter for 25 per cent of their classes. In contrast, their last choice was able to provide an interpreter for 100 per cent of classes. This situation would not occur because students can access the Disabled Students Allowance to fund the support they need independently of a particular university’s own budget.
Ideally, the best levels of support available at some providers – such as the University of Sheffield’s £10,000 bursary – would be available from all providers. But, based on the data from the 149 providers Civitas included in its report, the annual cost of providing a £10,000 bursary would range from £50,000 to well over £5m.
It is unreasonable and pretty implausible to expect single providers to be able to find this level of funding based on our current funding formula for higher education.
This speaks to a need for a centralised fund to provide financial support to care experienced students, ensuring that the same level of support is available to these students regardless of where they choose to study. And yes, we know that the sector is currently experiencing a financial crisis – and calls for more money are simply unrealistic. But we have a cunning plan.
Each year, the Office for Students (OfS) distributes almost £1.5bn to providers, most of which provides additional funding for high-cost courses. For the 2023-24 financial year, £306m is distributed as part of the OfS’s Student Access and Success fund.
While some of this funding is earmarked for specific programmes – such as £30m for Uni Connect and £41m for the Disabled Student’s Premium – £221m is distributed as a “premium to support successful student outcomes.”
While £221m is a small proportion of all funding received by higher education providers, it is nonetheless a significant sum of money, which we might assume has a demonstrable impact on student outcomes. As it turns out, this assumption is incorrect. OfS describes its approach to disseminating these funds as being “not overly directive,” as it recognises that it is regulating autonomous providers, and in general steers clear of dictating how to achieve the desired outcomes.
In practice, while the principle of light-touch funding is appropriate for a mature sector, it means that there is no information available to understand how these funds are being spent, nor whether the investment is indeed impacting student outcomes, beyond that which is being published by individual providers. While the new Access and Participation Plan framework will put a lot more emphasis on the publication of evaluation data, this will take a few more years to fully embed itself.
The Student Premium is allocated to providers on the basis of a formula which primarily relies on age (mature students – over 21 – who are considered those at higher risk of non-progression) and entry tariff. These two inputs determine a provider’s annual entitlement.
A smaller proportion of the total premium allocation (£19m) is further weighted by the proportion of students coming from POLAR quintiles 1 and 2.
On the face of it, age, entry tariff, and POLAR quintiles are a good start if you want to start identifying where to target a large sum of money to support improved outcomes for students at risk of non-completion.
However, basing a funding formula only on these metrics seems odd when the OfS holds far more detailed data on risks to equality of outcomes – such as their Access and Participation Data Dashboard, which is an excellent resource for the sector.
What is odd is that in the context of care experienced students, many bursaries for this group limit access to them at below 25. We know from several studies that participation rates for care experienced students shoot up from around 14 per cent for 18-19-year-olds to 25 – 30 per cent for those 30+ years old. If mature students have been highlighted as a group at risk of non-completion (such as more likely to be care experienced) and targeted with funding, then it would make sense to ensure that these students are, indeed, in receipt of such funding.
At a time when the higher education sector faces a significant and growing financial challenge, it would be prudent for us all – OfS included – to ensure that limited resources are spent in a way that delivers the best possible outcomes for students. OfS has a large sum of funding which is supposed to help reduce inequalities of outcome for disadvantaged students. But the formula being used to allocate it is not optimised to ensure this funding is genuinely targeting those who are most likely to benefit. And neither OfS nor providers, collectively, are publishing data to show whether the funding is delivering on its aim.
We know that care experienced students are significantly more likely to face financial difficulties and that providing bursaries to this group has a transformative impact on their outcomes in higher education. We also know that the availability of these bursaries is perversely impacted by the volume of care experienced students at any given provider – such that the more care experienced students a provider recruits the less able they will be to provide the most generous levels of financial support. Which is all kinds of counterintuitive.
This brings us to a very obvious and logical conclusion; OfS should revise its approach to distributing its Student Premium funding, hypothecating more of the total allowance to specific groups of students. Care experienced students attending any university should be reassured that their provider can offer a standard support package; while all providers should be assured that these targeted funds will be linked to the student. While this is a potentially significant shift in approach, starting this change with a focus on care experienced students would be a great first step, before considering targeting funds to other groups and for other purposes. Perhaps most importantly, in current times of financial challenge, this could be achieved in a cost neutral way.
We would like to think that OfS would be pushing at an open door with the sector on such a proposal. Institutional autonomy is an important aspect of how the sector is regulated. But that should not translate into students who are in genuine need of targeted financial support facing a lottery when it comes to the amount of support individual providers have been able to set aside from fixed, and increasingly strained, budgets.