28 Nov 2013
Over the past 50 years, successive governments have adhered to variants of the Robbins principle: that higher education courses should be available to all those who are qualified and wish to study, irrespective of their social or economic background, although in practice constraints on public expenditure have meant that student numbers have always been capped. The higher education sector in the United Kingdom has undergone significant transformation during this time: whereas in 1963 there were 216,000 full-time undergraduate students and 31 universities, in 2011-12 there were 1,411,975 full-time undergraduate students (plus a further 516,165 part-time undergraduates) and 163 universities.
Over this time rates of progression to higher education have increased amongst people from all backgrounds, ages and social groups. The advent of specific funding in the academic year 1999-2000 – known initially as the Widening Participation Premium and latterly as the Student Opportunity allocation – to help universities recruit and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, has played an important role in facilitating this shift in England.
Student Opportunity Funding: Why it counts, published by the university think-tank million+ and NEON (the National Education Opportunities Network), examines how universities have established a diverse array of programmes with this funding that target specific areas of disadvantage to good effect. It concludes that because the funding follows the student, the money is efficiently targeted, financing the universities and programmes that are most successful. It also concludes that any moves to reduce this element of social mobility support is likely to undermine successful and innovative programmes and halt or even reverse some of the progress that has been made in encouraging participation in higher education of students from under-represented groups.