Ministers are urged to think again as axe hangs over ‘crucial’ opportunities fund

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Shock cut ‘shuts out poor students’ in Bradford Shock cut ‘shuts out poor students’ in Bradford

Many poorer students will be shut out of Bradford’s university and college if a shock £4m funding cut goes ahead, the Government has been warned.

Academics and Opposition politicians have urged ministers to think again as the axe hangs over the “crucial” Student Opportunities Fund.

The grants – which go to both universities and further education colleges – pay for extra support to recruit and retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Such help includes summer schools and extra tuition classes, through to helping to support internments and work placements with companies.

This year, University of Bradford received £2.91m and Bradford College £1.03m, from the department for business, innovation and skills (BIS).

Now internal documents have revealed that Business Secretary Vince Cable is targeting the £327m fund in the search for savings to plug a £1.4bn hole in his finances.

The draconian move comes despite Nick Clegg recently proclaiming that a drive to improve “social mobility” for the poorest was his “guiding star.”

Shirley Congdon, pro-Vice-Chancellor for learning and teaching at the University of Bradford, said the funds were vital “to keep students on their degree programme”.

They helped explain why its dropout rate for students from the most disadvantaged areas was only 5.3 per cent – well below an expected ‘benchmark’ of 8.7 per cent.

Ms Congdon said: “We use the student opportunity funding to support students from low participation neighbourhoods and have been successful in this area.

“In order to continue support for these students we would have to re-allocate resources.”

Liam Byrne, Labour’s universities spokesman, blamed the “complete mess” on funds being blown on giving loans to students at private colleges.

He added: “Now it looks like help for poorer students will be axed to pay for it.

“I’m deeply disappointed Vince Cable refused to pledge he would protect this vital help for poorer students to pursue their dreams by getting a good education.”

The controversy was raised in the Commons this week, when Dr Cable urged Labour MPs not to “rely on rumours.”

However, the Business Secretary stopped well short of denying the fund will be chopped for the 2014-15 financial year, as feared – and abolished after the 2015 general election.

Confirmation will only come when universities and colleges receive delayed letters from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

NUS president Toni Pearce said: “Cutting the Student Opportunity Fund is an absolute disgrace. The Government is backtracking on its commitment to support social mobility.”

A Bradford College spokesman said: “We are unable to comment prior to confirmation of any changes to the Student Opportunities Fund.

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