Statistics obtained by the shadow universities secretary, David Willetts, show that ministers had known for a year that the maintenance grant policy, which was altered in 2007, was going to cost more than intended. From next year, the upper limit for receiving the partial grant will be reduced from £60,000 to £50,020, which Labour has estimated will affect up to 40,000 students. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have stated the number of applicants losing out as a result of the cut back will in fact be closer to 80,000 students.
Willetts said a “cruel trick” had been played on students, since 51,000 students were allowed to apply to university this season before the cut backs were announced by the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, and therefore did not have the correct information about the amount of financial support they could receive. He said: “The government must have known that their sums didn’t add up. Yet they let students apply to university anyway, knowing full well that there would have to be cuts in maintenance grants.”
The cut backs have been criticised by Million+, a group for the newer universities, who are worried a wider participation in higher education will no longer be an option, with both students from middle-income families and from non-traditional university backgrounds being affected. Prof Les Ebdon, chair of Million+, said that pupils from lower-income families tend to apply far later in the admissions cycle, and since the admissions process for next September has already started, “the intervention by the funding council at this stage is bound to disadvantage non-traditional students”.
Ministers are also worried over the prospect of higher education institutions taking on too many students, which according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), could seriously threaten university finances. HEFCE has been forced to consider contingency measures to reduce the risk of universities over-recruiting, even limiting student numbers by altering university funding. Next year, universities will have to try not to increase full-time undergraduate students above the actual level of admissions for 2008-09.
A spokesperson from the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) said: “The government is committed to growing student numbers and to ensuring finance is no barrier to going to university. That’s why last year we committed to provide two thirds of students with a full or partial grant”. They claimed to have “exceeded [their] expectations” and consequently “have decided to make some adjustments to the eligibility thresholds to make sure we can continue to meet our commitment and support those in most need.”