Underfunding smaller institutions has serious consequences

This blog, authored by Angela Halston, IHE Policy and Engagement Officer, was first published on Wonkhe.

What is in store for the institutions that have already registered and fall into the small to medium enterprises (SMEs) category?

Yes, there have been recent conversations around promoting systems enabling new quality providers to join the Office for Students (OfS) register, but funding to participate in sector initiatives always seems directed to larger providers.

Consequentially, outputs such as frameworks and charters are ineffective in an SME context. Unable to participate in the pilots for these frameworks, staff are forced to find their path to best practice alone, and they miss opportunities to collaborate on projects and share learning with peers.

Independent Higher Education (IHE) works to help members overcome the challenges of operationalising frameworks such as the University Mental Health Charter – partially funded with government money – that apply to only larger providers.

We recently launched a collaboration with the Charlie Waller Trust based on their CREATE toolkit, which they are tailoring for smaller settings to address the need for whole institution evidence-based mental health strategies.

And while we have just completed the Many Hands project, funded by the Office for Students (OfS) Mental health funding competition – a collaborative project comprised exclusively of small-setting HE providers who have established a peer mentoring service for students to improve mental health and wellbeing, this was the first – and only – of its kind.

SMEs need more numbers for quantitative evaluation; they cannot afford the Higher Education Access Tracker services, so the difficulty over how to best evaluate things like Access and Participation Plans (APPs) for small and micro providers continues.

Knock-on impact

APPs are a pertinent point. Smaller providers are likely to recruit students from underrepresented groups, and many offer flexible courses, including at Levels 4 and 5, aligning with specifics of the  Director of Fair Access and Participation’s priority areas.

But SMEs are forced to divert money from tuition fee income into support for underrepresented students in a way that works for them and the SME. This is because mainstream widening participation initiatives are designed for, and aimed, at larger providers.

So failing to support SMEs to grow is failing our under-represented students. Every student should benefit from the rich outputs of collaborative initiatives.

Funding allocation must acknowledge that different types of providers require different kinds of collaborative activity, and a percentage of government funding for widening participation initiatives must be ringfenced for SMEs in HE

HE is also out of step with other sectors on this. Health, agriculture, and tech are all sectors taking significant steps in supporting SME growth. For example, new funding has been created in the health sector to tackle evidence-based intervention. In HE, interventions such as Uni Connect has had its funding halved.

Fund collaboration

Tony Moss and Deborah Johnston, from London South Bank University, made a case for more funding for collaborative work to address inequality challenges.

Quite right – but this must incorporate funding for collaborations across all parts of the HE sector – for programmes that are flexible enough to include a diverse range of partners – those with 50 students as well as 15,000. And given the expectations of the upcoming Access and Participation Plan (APP) renewals, this is the ideal time.

The OfS must support providers who are emerging as world-leading and who face the same financial efficiency challenges as those who have already achieved world-leading status.

A specific funding allocation for emerging world-leading providers would support the OfS’s responsibilities to expand and support widening participation, opportunity, and innovation and ensure value for money.

Of course, this call for SME support is not new. In 2019, we published our SME manifesto for higher education. There is promising movement on some elements of this. For example, the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill bringing us closer to funding-by-credit, which we called for to boost industry short courses and CPD. We are getting there, but there is a lot more road to travel to embrace our SMEs and enable them to join the OfS register and transition to supported growth.

The government needs to lead by example and interweave SME funding throughout HE initiatives to recognise the value of specialist providers and cease creating projects for the sector which do not reflect its breadth and diversity.

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