A couple of weeks ago I became one of the first MPs to speak out against proposed cuts to the student opportunities fund, an income stream given to universities to enable them to fund access and widening participation work to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The £327m fund could be cut by 60%, which would severely affect the ability of some universities to carry out outreach work on anything like the present scale.
The amount each university receives is in proportion to how many students from disadvantaged backgrounds they recruit. This means those universities which have higher numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be disproportionately hit by these cuts, affecting their ability to reach out and attract students who otherwise would not think of applying to University.
Access and outreach work is enormously important, especially in light of the Coalition's trebling of tuition fees in 2010. I know many students in Oxford give lots of their time volunteering on schemes such as Target Schools and are very passionate about improving access to Oxford, and that many colleges and the University employ staff dedicated to widening participation. This work is vitally important to ensure students are not put off of coming to university and that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and poorly performing schools don't think that Oxford isn't a place for them. Access and outreach work hence has a very important role to play in boosting social mobility through higher education, which is why I fully support and commend all the work students and staff at Oxford and beyond do.
The role of higher education in our economy and society is more important than ever. The research that Universities such as Oxford carry out is at the forefront of advances in technology and our understanding of the world. Last week I was at the launch of the new UK research centre for Arthritis on Old Road which is one of the many centres of research in this city which attract people of the highest ability from all over the world. However, we need to ensure that everyone in our country is helped to make the most of their potential. My fear with these cuts to the ability of Universities to carry out widening participation work is that some people with exceptional ability from disadvantaged backgrounds will not think about applying to Universities such as Oxford, and this impacts both social mobility at a time where inequality is worsening, and means universities may be missing out on some of the brightest and best.
These cuts to the student opportunities fund will inhibit the ability of Universities across the country to hire full-time staff dedicated to widening participation work, and in many cases may lead to universities have to lose staff at a time when they are needed msot. They show a government which is not serious about its claimed commitment to improving social mobility. Vince Cable's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is cutting a fund which helps universities do work which is more important than ever in light of the ill-effects of the Coalition's higher education policy. The Coalition has already cut the £150m National Scholarship Programme, which provided fee waivers and bursaries to students from poorer backgrounds, by two-thirds, and these further cuts torpedo any claim to be improving social mobility.
Oxford itself stands to lose £600,000 as a result of the cuts to the student opportunities fund. This may mean job losses, and certainly a diminished ability for the university to carry out widening participation work. Access to Oxford has improved over the last few decades, but there are still several areas of inequality, notably the proportion of private school students who apply to and get places at Oxford as compared to the country as a whole. Widening participation work needs to continue to expand to reach those students who otherwise would not think of applying to Oxford, or University at all.
This is why I have backed the National Union of Students' campaign to Save Student Opportunities. I have written to Vince Cable expressing my concerns about these proposed cuts, as I know many of my colleagues on the Labour benches have. I hope that other MPs from across the political spectrum also speak out against these proposed cuts and in favour of the government continuing to fund the widening participation work of universities.
As ever, if there are any issues you would like to raise with me please do get in touch at Andrew.Smith.MP@gmail.com. I am also today (31st January) holding a drop-in student surgery at St. Hilda's College JCR to allow students to meet me about any issues they are concerned about. You can keep in touch with the work I do in Oxford on my website, www.AndrewSmithMP.org.uk, or on Twitter, @OxfordLabourMP.