So yesterday saw the controlled demolition of everyone’s five-year Office for Students access and participation plans (APPs) – and today brings an analysis of sector performance against the plans that existed before the five-year plans were approved (the one year plans submitted in 2018 to cover 2018-19 activity). Never let it be said that policy is not a wild ride.
In all, OfS monitored 240 providers and saw 231 monitoring returns by April 2021, backed up by 118 student submissions. Even through the painful early stages of Covid-19, providers spent more than anticipated on both activities and student support – students agreed that providers had broadly delivered on commitments and had “made reasonable decisions” when responding to the impact of the pandemic.
Nobody failed to deliver – but OfS used its right to ask for further information from 20 per cent of providers with an APP – mostly around differences between expected and actual spend on support for disadvantaged students.
You may recall the infamous £256m “magic money twig” that was repeatedly invoked by ministers – before that we had £69m of student premium funding linked to APPs cross-allocated in 2019-20 (£23m a month for April, May and June) which was the money that ministers expected providers to use to support students financially rather than paying for outreach activity that couldn’t happen anyway. But as it turns out the big increase in expenditure against plans happened for access work (+23 per cent) rather than financial support (+1 per cent)
This was spent on stuff like extending hardship funding, topping up existing bursaries, and either providing or loaning IT equipment alongside expanding eligibility for these schemes. However, in APP terms funds used for rent refunds and rebates was not counted, as providers were not clear whether or not this was targeted only at previously defined “underrepresented or vulnerable” students.
This rather flies in the face of repeated assertions that the funds could be used to support mental health and wellbeing for all students (uncaveated in any of the many, many, times Michelle Donelan used this form of words in parliament). To be strictly fair, disadvantaged students suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, but all students struggled and all students should have been supported based on their actual needs rather than whether or not they fitted into a particular definition.
The regulator was delighted with the effort and diligence that students brought to their submissions, and noted a broad support both for the way providers had delivered against plans and the changes made during the pandemic. Students noted the impact on vulnerable students, noting issues like access to part-time work, mental health, isolations, and loneliness – though submissions were clear that these affected all students. Work done by providers and SUs to facilitate interaction and community was praised – but key concerns about communication and inconsistencies in academic support was highlighted as a major issue. Digital poverty was cited as a key barrier to remote learning. It’s all good stuff.
None of this changes the fact that providers were allocated money to do access and participation, and delivery against the same plans (already projected to cost more than was allocated) has been measured. Providers who took the minister at her word and used these funds to support all students have had to answer difficult questions about why issues of broad human decency got in the way of spending the money on some students and not others. Perhaps this is the reduction in bureaucracy that we keep hearing about.