‘Cuts to university fund will hit Sunderland’s poorest students’

Professor Peter Fidler, vice chancellor of Sunderland University.
Professor Peter Fidler, vice chancellor of Sunderland University.
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GOVERNMENT cuts which could see Sunderland’s poorest students lose out on millions of pounds of grant funding are being bitterly opposed by university bosses.

Now University of Sunderland’s vice chancellor has hit back at documents revealing that Business Secretary Vince Cable plans to abolish the Student Opportunities Fund of which the Wearside university received millions in the last year.

At £3.37million it comes in third behind Teesside University and University of Northumbria, and now it looks as though the Treasury could cut the £327million fund by 60 per cent in 2014, before axing it completely the following year.

Grants from the fund pays for extra support to recruit and retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including extra tuition, summer schools and help with internships and work placements.

Professor Peter Fidler and seven fellow university vice chancellors have penned an open letter to the government as a last-ditch attempt to stop poorer students being shut out of higher education.

“We have supported the efforts of successive governments to widen access to higher education, enhance social mobility and individual life chances,” it reads. We are dismayed by suggestions that the Treasury plans to cut Student Opportunity funding by a further 60 per cent in 2014-15 and abolish it entirely in 2015.

“This allocation is distributed to universities to support the widening access work of universities, ensuring that students from a wide range of backgrounds can enter higher education. It is through the education of these students that the UK economy will gain the skills and knowledge required to recover, and more importantly, strengthen.

“To cut the fund by £200m in 2014 and then remove it entirely the following year suggests that the Government is willing to abandon the cause of social mobility in higher education to which reference was made in the May 2010 Coalition Agreement. Further, the removal of this fund will damage economic growth and have a wider impact on sectors beyond higher education.

“We would urge David Cameron and Nick Clegg to work with their Government departments to protect the Student Opportunity fund and the much-needed work it supports.”

Also standing to lose out is University of Durham, which benefitted from 1.53million from the fund, New College Durham at £640,000 and City of Sunderland College which received £280,000.

National Union of Students (NUS) president Toni Pearce said: “Cutting the Student Opportunity Fund is an absolute disgrace and, in the wake of cuts to the National Scholarship Programme, looks like the Government is backtracking on its commitment to support social mobility in favour of balancing the books on the backs of the poor.

“We already know that young people from the most advantaged neighbourhoods in England are still three times more likely to enter higher education than those from the most disadvantaged. Unfortunately, the Government’s sustained attacks on our education system do nothing to help young people with the financial practicalities of staying in college and moving onto higher education.

“When the Government is lavishing funds on for profit providers, it is particularly outrageous that it is once again stripping away opportunities from the poorest students.”