Cut cut cut cut cut cut cut

We’ve covered the Westminster government’s “magic money twig” on the site before.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s the money it gives to the Office for Students (OfS) to give to providers on top of the money they raise from the tuition fee to “support successful student outcomes”.

This piece was originally published in Feb 2023. I’ve updated it both with the 23/24 numbers and the recent announcement on the magic money twig student premium for 24/25.

In the earlier part of the last decade it was like an HE version of the pupil premium, and these days it’s lazily (and craftily) rebranded as “hardship funding” every time the government is asked a question about student finance.

One aspect of the twig – other than its repeated deployment and ever broadening purposes – is the way in which the total has reduced both in real terms and in actual terms. Here’s the figures since 2018:

 FT CoreFT SupplementPTDisabledExtraTOTAL
2022/23134,51919,50766,80440,50214,749 + 15,000£292m
2023/24134,51619,50666,83540,50414,750 + 10,000£287m

As you can see, the total this year once we add in the £15m extra that ministers keep bragging about is still lower than that allocated in 2018 – and as I say, these days the funding isn’t just supposed to support providers to support those most at risk of dropping out – it’s to fill in the gaps left by insufficient maintenance too.

Last week it was announced that it will be increased (ie cut in actual terms once you discard the in-year extras of this year, and therefore slashed in real terms) to £282m – still lower than 2018 in cash terms.

But as well as its broadening purposes and decline in value in real terms, we have never really looked at how many students it’s being spread between.

Given higher education gets better each year at widening participation, does it stand to reason that even the declining pie is being sliced ever thinner too?

The basic way of calculating the slice hasn’t changed in donkey’s. Basically we’re looking here at undergraduate students who are deemed to be most at risk of withdrawing from their studies because of their qualifications and age profile, and who therefore require additional investment to ensure their retention and success.

The allocation includes a supplement that recognises students from areas of the country with low levels of higher education participation or qualification, and end up being made in proportion to “weighted FTEs”.

So you end up with 12 risk categories, weighted according to:

  • Age – ‘young’ (aged under 21) and ‘mature’ (aged 21 or over on entry).
  • Qualification aim (those aiming for a first degree and those aiming for another undergraduate qualification).
  • Risk associated with entry qualifications (low, medium and high).

Next there’s a supplementary allocation that focuses funding on providers with the most students from underrepresented areas, incorporating two provider weightings:

  • A weighting based on the proportion of students who are at risk of withdrawing from their studies (reflecting the 12 risk categories).
  • A weighting based on the proportion of students who are both at risk and from the most underrepresented areas.

The Part Time UG allocation is more straightforward – done on numbers alone – and the Disabled allocation is done on a weighting that reflects the proportion of their UK students who receive DSA (weighted at 2) or who self-declare a disability (weighted at 1).

Any extras in year get based on the above, and there’s no allocations for anyone else – even though it’s clear that providers are allowed to (and often encouraged to) spend the money on whoever they like.

Anyway – what’s extraordinary is the way in which the amounts allocated per weighted FTE have declined sharply since 2018. Remember these are raw numbers – the decline in real terms is much sharper for obvious reasons:

 FT CoreFT SupplementPTDisabled

Particularly egregious is the cut in actual terms (and the even bigger one in real terms) for disabled students – of 29 per cent per student since 2018, or 43 per cent per student in real terms. Unless the trend lines on disabled students have changed, that’ll be even less as a result of today’s announcement.

Thanks to the current government, over the past six years students have ended up getting less invested in their education but will be paying more (back); they’re getting less to live on yet paying more back in maintenance; and their universities are getting less money to help those most at risk of dropping out, while expecting that money to be spent on more things and more students. What a scam.

And more importantly, if providers are supposed to allocate money from their fee income to spend on access and participation on the basis of what works, how on earth can they make predictions over 4 years when the top up from government that goes into the same pot varies every year? If OfS’ allocation per student changes every year, surely it should require an Access and Participation Plan variation every year to account for the difference?

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