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It’s time to completely rethink how we fund specialist institutions

  • 26 July 2021
  • By Paul Kirkham

This blog was kindly contributed by Paul Kirkham, Chief Executive of The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance.

Last week, the Office for Students confirmed changes to how it will distribute funding to universities and colleges for 2021-22. This follows consultation and new terms and conditions received from the Secretary of State for Education. And as expected, high-cost subjects not related to medicine or healthcare, STEM, or those supporting specific labour market needs, will be subject to reductions in funding from next year, with the subsidy being reduced from £243 per full-time student per year (in 2020-21) to £121.50.

In parallel, funding for sixteen ‘specialist institutions’ will increase by £10 million to £53 million – including additional grants for a number of ‘world-leading’ institutions delivering courses in the performing and creative arts.

Prior to this response from the Office for Students, voices have been raised (somewhat sporadically it has to be said) in defence of those subjects that are to be cut. I will not in this article rehearse the arguments for properly supporting the range of high-cost Band C subjects affected, and those in the creative arts in particular. The benefits of such courses are well understood both within and outside of the sector, including the significant impact on the economy of creative arts practitioners, the further development of our valuable cultural and artistic heritage, and the wider positive impact of a creative education on learning and development. While no-one would argue against proper support for the provision of STEM, healthcare and subjects that support specific labour market needs (do not creative arts subjects do such a thing?), this should not be a zero-sum game in which other high-cost subjects, just as important to our wider national development, are cut.

The Secretary of State’s instruction earlier this year to ‘commit [the Office for Students] … to distributing £53 million in exceptional funding for specialist providers’ now confirmed by the Office for Students should of course be encouraging. Sadly, his parallel instruction to ensure that of this £53 million, £48 million [should be] for providers already in receipt of such funding’ is poorly informed and does not help the cause of creative and specialist provision in any fair, balanced or meaningful way. The methodology for allocation of this funding was in itself questionable when the now defunct Higher Education Funding Council for England developed it in 2015. The criteria at the time included that an institution’s teaching costs should be ‘significantly, and justifiably, higher than can be reasonably met through other means; that ‘reasonable measures are being taken by the institution to meet [these] higher costs; and that ‘the institution has a genuine and consistent reputation … for providing world-leading teaching’.

It would not be difficult, aside from the blindingly obvious fact that these are not criteria embedded in the regulatory and funding framework that we have been living in for several years now, to demolish this process of allocation as nonsense. The Secretary of State himself has stated earlier this year that supporting subjects simply on the basis of their higher costs of provision is not an appropriate methodology. Having higher teaching costs is in itself a result of having higher (usually heavily subsidised) income levels – in my own institution, if you handed us £4mn per annum additional funding (which is what half of those 16 institutions have actually been receiving for several years now) I can guarantee that we would use a significant portion of that funding to enhance our teaching and deliver a more conservatoire-type model, thus increasing costs. In other words, this is a self-serving argument. But having received these enormous sums, we should ask whether these institutions have been properly held to account for their activities to manage their higher costs through other means. Further, the cliché ‘world leading’ is simply not a meaningful, objective measure; no doubt a significant portion of that funding goes into PR-related activities to further enhance and burnish the ‘world leading’ reputations of these institutions. And finally are they all really, truly ‘small and specialist’?

The Secretary of State had requested that the Office for Students look into the matter of small and specialist funding but accepted in March of this year that the The Office for Students has advised that this review cannot be concluded before the start of the [next] academic year’. He further stated that he was concerned that ‘these world leading specialist providers [should] receive confirmation of their funding levels in good time for the 2021/22 academic year’. That’s very considerate and helpful for them – while in parallel the vast majority of those hundreds of providers operating in this part of the higher education sector must now deal with significant cuts in their own funding with hardly any time to plan; no opportunity to even bid for over 90% of the £53mn that has been allocated; and, subject to the promise of further consultation, perhaps have an outside chance of having access to a small slice of no more than £5mns from this fund later in the year.

All of this makes no sense. In the last five years alone, these 16 providers have received in excess of £200 million in additional funding. Their outcomes would not appear to be significantly above their benchmarks, in the main. As far as I can tell they have not been specifically and publicly held to account for this funding. The mechanism for allocation is redundant, belonging as it does to a past, anachronistic and questionable regime of ‘regulation’, and should have been reviewed immediately the Office for Students was formed. But the review of the entire process has been repeatedly delayed which is frankly mystifying given the amount of taxpayers’ money that is involved.

As a result, this process of protecting the elites and the preferred is being perpetuated for at least another year while hundreds of other providers – and their thousands of students – who could potentially be eligible to benefit from this substantial pot of funding are in contrast being subjected to further cuts with little time to plan. It is therefore time to end this system of patronage, properly align the entire £53 million of specialist funding with the current regulatory and funding framework, establish true accountability, transparency and fairness and question the efficacy of a small number of protected delivery models and their perpetuation through comfortable and unquestioning taxpayer subsidy.

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