London weighting axed and arts grants cut, Office for Students confirms

The plans were floated earlier this year, and a consultation undertaken with the sector, but the pleas for a reprieve appear to have fallen on deaf ears

The Office for Students has confirmed it is abolishing London-weighted grants for universities in the capital – and slashing funding worth £20 million to “high-cost” arts subjects in England.

The changes – decried from almost all corners of the sector – are to take effect from the start of the 2021 academic year. In a letter to the chief executive of the regulator, Gavin Williamson told Nicola Dandridge that “a reprioritisation” of the strategic priorities grant, valued at £1.48 billion for 2021/22, was needed.

The plans were floated earlier this year and a consultation undertaken with the sector, but the pleas for a reprieve appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Williamson dismissed concerns about the impact of the changes to providers in London, noting “that recent OfS analysis of the financial returns and forecasts for the HE sector shows that the sector, on the whole, remains financially sound and resilient“. The London-weight grant changes also apply to student premiums.

London Higher warned ministers that providers in the capital cannot afford to lose London weighting. Prof Amanda Broderick, vice-chancellor of the University of East London and chair of London Higher, warned the changes would damage widening participation and lower social mobility in the most deprived part of Greater London.

Although arts subjects – music, dance, performing arts, art and design, and media studies – will see their SPG funding reduced by half, Mr Williamson granted a last-minute reprieve to archaeology, which retains its high-cost subject funding. For subjects where reductions are to be applied, this subsidy will reduce from £243 per full-time student per year (in 2020-21) to £121.50. Mr Williamson told the OfS that only subjects related to medicine, healthcare, engineering, IT and the sciences should retain this grant funding, which was renamed to underline its role in driving governmental preferences.

The OfS was at pains today to point out that this £20m sum is equivalent to “around 1 per cent of the combined course fee and OfS funding” – and these cuts do not include other OfS grants, such as those given to support disadvantaged students. “Today’s changes to the funding method come in the context of significant growth in student numbers – particularly in courses that are more expensive to teach. This means that OfS funding will need to stretch further to cover more students,” the regulator said in a statement.

Funding for some specialist institutions will increase by £10 million to £53 million from the next academic year – including additional £5m grants for ‘a number’ of “world-leading” HEIs delivering courses in the performing and creative arts. A review, set for later this year, will identify exactly which specialist providers will gain a share of this uplift.

UniConnect will see funding reduced by £20m, it was confirmed – with the savings invested in mental health and student hardship funds instead. The OfS will distribute £131 million in capital funding for providers “through a small formula allocation of £7.4 million and a bidding exercise for the remaining £123.6 million”. Capital bidding processes are to change, and the OfS was instructed to prioritise “high-cost subjects of strategic importance”, and providers in “less prosperous parts of England” that are prioritising “modular, part-time and flexible provision”.

Nolan Smith, director of resources and finance at the OfS, said: “Distributing funding is an important part of our regulatory work. The strategic priorities grant for universities and colleges plays an important role in supporting high-cost subjects and boosting student access across the country. We will continue to work with the government and others to ensure our funding continues to make a positive impact across the higher education sector.”

The general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) described the grant changes as “one of the biggest attacks on arts and entertainment in English universities in living memory”.

‘This announcement undermines the huge contribution the creative arts sector makes to society and the wider economy,” added Jo Grady.

Read more: No bias against arts subjects, says Williamson

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