Meeting the UK education funding challenge

For many young people, education is an important investment of time and money that is expected to lead to a good job and a higher income. However, during the last decade many of the costs involved in gaining a quality education have been passed on to students as the UK’s further and higher education sectors undergo significant change. This evolution is being driven by a number of political, cultural and economic factors and affects every aspect of education provision, the environment in which colleges and universities operate, and what institutions are expected to achieve. It is clear that helping them deliver their commitment to support learning and skills development will be one of the major challenges of the coming years.

Progressing to an advanced level of study is something many young people aspire to but they may face financial issues in further education that will only increase upon entering higher education. To take one example, this is an environment in which a recent National Audit Office report notes that half of colleges were in deficit in 2013-14, a situation which the Public Accounts Committee chair, Meg Hillier, described as ‘deeply alarming’. That resources are so stretched means colleges and their higher education counterparts will be looking to ensure their own sustainability as well as providing support for students relying on their services. This reality has been compounded by the announcement in the Summer Budget that university maintenance grants for lower-income students in England – cited by Chancellor George Osborne as having become ‘unaffordable’ – are to be scrapped from September 2016. In response to this move, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that students from the poorest backgrounds in England are likely to graduate owing up to £53,000 once maintenance grants are replaced by loans – a figure not easily ignored, in the knowledge that more than half a million students from poorer backgrounds currently receive such grants. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has also warned that universities in the country could fall behind those in the rest of the UK unless the way students are funded changes. The outlook remains more positive than in England, and arguably so in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where administrations are keen to ensure that tuition fee policy is an investment in young people and that the choice of institution and course should be driven by individual circumstances rather than the cost of fees.

Given that universities and colleges are working harder than ever to improve access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – and entry rates are now at record levels – progress in this area could be adversely affected. However, it is important to remember that in addition to the loans and grants available to students, there are other sources of financial support and funding for students who fit particular circumstances. The Access to Learning Fund in England, Support Fund in Northern Ireland, Discretionary Fund in Scotland and the Welsh Government Learning Grant Further Education are just some examples of schemes designed to encourage more people to continue with their education, where otherwise this may not be possible. A further valuable source of funding information is Idox’s Open 4 Learning platform. This online funding search tool is designed to empower those in further and higher education – or those seeking skills training – by giving them access to the information they need to find learning and maintenance funding. Matt Till, Assistant Director of Student Services at Birmingham City University, comments on what he thinks sets apart those organisations investing in Open 4 Learning:

“What is different about institutions using Open 4 Learning is that they strongly believe in opening up funding opportunities to students from all kinds of backgrounds and looking to study at any institution. Providing the service enables them to help prospective students find a scholarship by level of study, basis for selection, institution and course, meaning that they can still look into funding options – even if they are unsure as to what they are planning to study at the present time.”

He adds: ‘‘Idox’s Open 4 Learning service provides a number of university bursary and funding options that are open to all students. It’s an innovative and easy-to-use funding information tool; it offers a fantastic, comprehensive database that covers UK scholarships, grants and bursaries that are open to UK and EU students coming to study in the UK.”

A recent survey of students’ use of Open 4 Learning at Birmingham City University returned impressive feedback. Of the 124 responses received, 35% of respondents had applied for funding as a result of the funding opportunities identified through the service. Of these respondents, 47% had successfully obtained funding, making for a total recorded funding success of some £34,330.

There are further aspects to this theme. Whilst most of the focus in recent months has been on prospective students, for those who are already in education, funding can be even more crucial. Two effective sources of support for these students are charities and research bodies, with their ability to make awards (fees, maintenance, research costs and so on) to any student regardless of subject or nationality – or to help students of a particular niche topic. Financial support exists for UK, EU and international students at all levels of study. Open 4 Learning features many such funding programmes, as Sharon Sweeney, Student Funding Officer at the University of Dundee, recognises. The service has supported Dundee in its mission of encouraging greater take-up of learning opportunities – and to boost equality of access during a time of rising education costs. As Sharon comments:

“Our students increasingly avail themselves of Open 4 Learning to support their quest for additional funding for their current course of study or to assist them in preparation for postgraduate study. That the database includes local, national and international information means continued support for the University’s commitment to all students’ academic and non-academic progression.”

Whilst their decision – and all that it involves – should not be made lightly, studying at college or university remains a realistic option for many young people. A range of support programmes exist to help them achieve their goals, ensuring that all can access world-class education. Changes to student finance are by no means the be all and end all, with most institutions unwavering in their mission to widen participation and create opportunities. With this in mind, whether they’re taking their first steps into learning or want to gain new skills with a view to enhancing their long-term career outlook, students can be assured that help is at hand.

By Sion Stedman, Idox

Idox supports further and higher education institutions and their students in their bid for funding via a dedicated suite of solutions including Open 4 Learning, GRANTfinder 4 Education and RESEARCHconnect. For further details, please email grants.marketing@idoxgroup.com

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