I strongly believe that all those with the ability should have access to higher education, irrespective of family income. That is why the Government took the tough decision to base university funding on student fees and loans rather than simply face cuts which would have tragically led to reduced student numbers.
Independent evaluation of the National Scholarship Programme (NSP) showed that it was not working well. There was low awareness of the programme and it had a limited impact on students’ decision making as funding is not generally guaranteed at the point of application.
I firmly believe that the Government has a duty to carefully look at where all funding goes to ensure it achieves maximum impact. I am pleased therefore that from 2015/16 the NSP will be refocused to support postgraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This has been identified, including by research undertaken by the National Union of Student (NUS), as a potential barrier to social mobility.
An initial £25 million fund will distribute grants of between £300,000 and £3 million to universities and colleges to attract and support disadvantaged students into postgraduate education. After studying its success an additional £50 million will be invested with extra funding expected from universities and businesses, bringing this to around £100 million.
The Government has been very clear about the importance of widening participation. It is establishing a new framework and given universities more responsibility to widen participation, including arrangements for annual access agreements which universities plan to spend over £670 million on in 2016/17.
The new system of student finance is a fundamentally more progressive one as students do not have to pay a penny up front for their education and graduates only pay back their loans when they earn more than £21,000.
I am proud of the progress that the Government has made in ensuring talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds make it to university. This year the proportion of applications for the most disadvantaged 18 year olds was at its highest level ever and I am glad that barriers to postgraduate education are being addressed.