An incentive to study: London's new universities

Money has not been a factor for students enrolling at London's new universities, finds Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

It seems to have been a good September for most admissions offices at London's new universities. After fears that higher tuition fees would deter large numbers of students from embarking on three years of higher education, and reports earlier in the summer of some courses struggling to attract students, the capital's former polytechnics are now reporting undergraduate enrolment very close to capacity.

It also appears that the process of allocating bursaries to first-year students for the first time has gone smoothly. But there's little evidence that the bursary factor had much influence on individuals' choices of where, and what, to study.

One of the biggest undergraduate intakes in the capital is at London Metropolitan University, where close to 10,000 freshers are embarking on degree courses. The university has a deliberately unelaborate bursary scheme for students from lower-income backgrounds. This gives grants of between £300 and £1,000, on a sliding scale, to all students from households with incomes between £17,500 and £40,000.

Mark Bickerton, the university's recruitment and marketing director, does not believe bursary considerations swayed prospective students' choice of course. "I believe students choose an institution and a subject first, and then inquire about the financial arrangements," he says.

But there is some evidence that the tuition fees did slightly reduce the overall amount of traffic in clearing this year. This may have been caused by a combination of two factors: some people deciding against university altogether, and others concentrating their search, geographically, in a narrower field.

London Met, for example, fielded fewer calls than last year, but there was no reduction in the number of places offered, an indication for Bickerton that tuition fees had concentrated many minds. "Maybe £3,000 makes you think more seriously about going to university," he says.

A similar story has emerged at Middlesex University, where the total calls to clearing were down on last year. "But the calls we did have were of a higher quality," explains Terry Butland, the deputy vice-chancellor. "By which I mean a higher proportion led to offers of places."

At London South Bank University, the evidence supports the view that, once students called clearing, they had made the big decision on going to university, and were focusing exclusively on academic considerations. "Not many students, to be honest, have mentioned money," reports pro-vice-chancellor Dr Phil Cardew, after what he describes as a nervous but successful clearing month, during which the university has filled about 30 per cent of all its undergraduate places.

South Bank's student intake has, historically, been mostly from lower-income groups, so it was decided to do away with means-testing in the award of the main bursary. Hence, all first-year students qualify for the university's annual grant, starting at £500 in the first year, rising to £750 in the second and third, and with a £250 bonus for those getting an honours degree.

On top of this, there are a further 10 scholarships of £1,000, awarded to Asian and West Indian students, mainly on the basis of academic merit.

At the University of East London, there is also an incentive element to the bursary package. On top of the £300 given to all students from homes with incomes under £37,500, a further £500 is awarded to students who successfully complete their first semester of study and progress into their second semester.

Another 200 achievement scholarships, worth £1,000, have been available during the enrolment process. These recognise exceptional prior academic achievement, or a record of achievement in creative activities, sport or citizenship.

At Greenwich University, one of a handful of universities across the country not charging the full £3,000 tuition fees (the fee is £2,500), a busy clearing period has brought offers and acceptances up to last year's total. Yet, like everywhere else, final figures will depend on how many students actually walk though the door and enrol.

Greenwich decided not to charge the full £3,000 top-up fee, so its bursary package is more modest. But it estimates that about a third of the new intake will qualify for the £500 grant, either on the grounds of high academic achievement, or because they are mature students on low incomes.

It had been thought that heightened financial concerns caused by increased tuition fees, and the consequent debts after three years, might have affected course choices. But, again, there's scant supporting evidence.

Popular subjects include philosophy, psychology and social sciences - none with an obvious, direct route to a steady salary. Courses that have been slow to fill up have included computer science and business studies - often considered strong in earning potential.

So the factors affecting the education paths chosen by freshers at London's new universities appear as diverse as the student population itself.