As regular readers of this column will know, this is the time of the year when we receive our grant letter from HEFCE describing our funding for the next academic year. Our funding letter for 2012-13 which arrived recently reflected the progressive diminution in HEFCE teaching funding across the sector as Government policy of universities replacing this with enhanced fee income begins to be implemented for new students. Importantly, however, our funding will be approximately £2 million greater than we had budgeted for, greatly improving our projected financial position for 2012-13. The difference in HEFCE funding partly reflects the continuation at similar levels of specific allowances such as those for part-time students and for widening participation. However, it also reflects our success in enhancing the retention of our students which has considerably improved this year.
In my last 'Masterpiece', I indicated that, in contrast to the great increase in applications for our three-year degree programmes via UCAS, early applications for our four-year degree programmes were significantly down on the record year 2011-12 and roughly comparable to those of the previous year 2010-11. Although it is still relatively early days in the application cycle for these programmes, this trend has continued and we believe this significant decrease is occurring across the part-time sector nationally.
Obviously, the greater than expected HEFCE funding reinforces the statement made in my last column, indicating that the College can remain financially viable and continue to develop even if this trend to decreased part-time undergraduate numbers is maintained throughout the current application cycle.
Nonetheless, we need to do everything we can to maintain and enhance our position. At School and Departmental level, this means ensuring we maximise conversion of applications into offers and offers into enrolments, both by providing students with as much information as possible and responding as quickly as possible in terms of offers. I am greatly encouraged by the figures showing increased numbers of offers being made by Schools compared to last year.
To assist Schools and Departments, the College has launched the “Our promise to you” campaign which you can see on the front page of our website. This allows students to determine rapidly whether they are eligible for a student loan. If so, we then promise to guide them through the process of obtaining the loan and most importantly undertake not to pursue them for fees should their loan not yet be confirmed by the time they start the course.
These measures are necessary in order to maintain and enhance student enrolment at a time when it is extremely difficult for prospective part-time students to obtain information from elsewhere. For example, when Birkbeck “mystery shoppers” called the Student Loans Company (which is responsible for administering the student loans system) they have been given incorrect information as to the availability of loans to particular groups of part-time students.
In view of this, we have also launched a social media campaign designed both to draw attention to this lack of available information externally and to the “Our promise to you” campaign which does provide this information. I raised this matter with the Minister, David Willetts at the recent HEFCE Conference and will shortly be having individual meetings with him and other politicians and sector leaders to discuss this issue and urge them to act now to enhance the information available to potential part-time students.
As before, Birkbeck is taking the lead nationally on behalf of part-time students. I believe that this action when combined with the ongoing focus in our Schools on maximising offers and enrolments will allow Birkbeck to continue to flourish in the new Higher Education environment.
Professor David S. Latchman