Oxford lures students with bursaries

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The Independent Online

Oxford University is to offer bursaries to students from poor backgrounds in a multimillion-pound scheme to encourage more disadvantaged applicants.

Undergraduates from less affluent homes will have part of their living expenses paid by the university under the "top-up" grant programme, believed to be the first of its kind in Britain.

From September 2002, first-year students with financial difficulties will be able to apply for bursaries from the university – thought to be worth £2,000 over three years.

The university has faced accusations of being élitist and out of touch since the bitter dispute over Laura Spence, the Tyneside state-school pupil who won a place at Harvard University after being rejected by Magdalen College. Officials argued that the university had been misrepresented by the affair but have since launched several schemes to increase applications from state schools.

The bursary scheme – partly funded by a substantial donation from an anonymous benefactor – aims to increase the proportion of students from poorer families after fears that potentially high-achieving candidates were not applying to Oxford because they believed it would be more expensive than other universities.

Students from poor families do not pay tuition fees, which are means-tested, but have to fund their living expenses. Fear of debt is believed to deter many from applying to university.

Half of the bursary is expected to be funded by the university from its donation, the other by a central fund paid for by all Oxford colleges. Colleges will contribute to the fund according to their wealth, but the money will be paid according to students' needs, so that poorer colleges are not disadvantaged by the scheme.

A spokesman for the university said: "This represents a long-term financial commitment by the university and colleges to providing support to students who are having financial difficulties while completing their degree."

The Oxford scheme is similar to the Government's opportunity bursary scheme, currently being piloted, which will give £2,000 bursaries in September to 7,000 students with little or no family history of attending university.

To qualify for one of the bursaries, students must have a family income below £20,000. Ministers will concentrate initially on students living in deprived inner-city areas.

Oxford colleges already offer their own bursaries, but this is the first to be offered across a university and to guarantee funding over three years.

Oxford University has launched several schemes to improve admissions from the state sector after discovering that, even at many of the country's top comprehensives, only a few sixth-formers have applied in the past five years.

Admissions officers have been contacting the top 100 institutions – as judged by their A-level results – offering to address staff and sixth formers, or to host visits to Oxford as a way of encouraging students to apply.