The government has decided that it will no longer fund people seeking to do a higher education course at an equivalent level to a qualification they already have, or a so-called lesser course (an ELQ). In September, it announced that, from 2008, £100m of funding for students wishing to study ELQs is to be withdrawn.The plans to axe funding for a huge swathe of higher education students will cost Oxford University over £4m in lost teaching funding by 2015 and contradict the government’s own lifelong learning agenda.
There was no consultation around the changes and the only supporter of the plans we have found is the chancellor of the UK’s only private university. Trade unions, the Tories, British industry, students and universities have all come out and slammed the proposals. The government has perpetuated the myth that recent graduates wanting to do a second degree will be the ones hit by the changes and the reallocation of funds is to help the widening participation agenda.
Evidence does not support this and if the government is not willfully misrepresenting the situation then it clearly does not understand the proper impact of its proposed funding alterations.Analysis by UCU of the data on the potential financial implications for universities and colleges has revealed that post-92 universities (former polytechnics) and institutions specialising in offering degrees to workers wishing to retrain will be the biggest losers under the new regime. However, Oxford University comes fourth in the ‘hit list’. We are very concerned about the effect the reduction in funding may have on the employment of staff at Oxford, particularly in the Department of Continuing Education, where lecturers tend to work on a part-time basis. We hope that a staged increase in fees for part-time courses will enable us to continue to offer very high quality part-time provision to the benefit of students and the local community. We also have a particular concern about the effect of the policy on Oxford students training for ordination, people taking an ELQ because of life changes resulting from accident or illness, women retraining to re-enter the workforce and the impact for older students on opportunities for life long learning.Whilst contradictory government policy in education is by no means a new phenomenon, these funding alterations fly in the face of government rhetoric about lifelong learning and its importance to the economy and the future prosperity of the country. The cynic in me cannot help but think that the government is more concerned with getting people though university to meet ambitious targets set out by the Leitch report, rather than really giving people another go or a second chance to improve themselves.

The government may prefer to describe these cuts as a reallocation of funding, but the bottom line is that institutions doing the most to try and deliver both the widening participation agenda and the lifelong learning agenda will be hit the hardest. We fully support initiatives to encourage new learners into higher education, but we cannot support doors being slammed in the faces of others who wish to develop their skills.With a review into university funding next year and opposition to the changing of ELQ funding so widespread we hope the government will take the only sensible option available to it and defer any decision to next year’s fees commission.

Sally Hunt is the General Secretary of the University and College Union, the largest trade union of academic staff.