Entitlements: Confusion reigns on campus

Hilary Wilce finds that amid all the new funds and grants, students are unclear about their entitlements
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Higher university fees came into play this autumn, but the newest universities are determined that this regime will not scare off students from homes where money is tight, so they are offering a wide range of bursaries and scholarships.

Northampton University is charging only £2,500 (rather than the full £3,000) for a full-time degree. In addition it is offering bursaries of £500 to students who are receiving a partial or full maintenance grant and to local students from designated parts of the Midlands and East Anglia. "We take pride in the fact that we are very much a regional university that recruits by far the majority of its students from within a 70-mile radius," says the vice-chancellor, Ann Tate. The college also offers specific subject awards, particularly in design, leather technology and textiles.

At the University of Gloucestershire, full-time course fees are £3,000, but students who can pay the whole three years upfront get a 20 per cent discount, bringing the cost of a degree down to £7,200. "Of the 2,000 students we've registered this year so far about 65 have taken up this offer," says university spokeswoman Rachel Jones.

The university also offers special deals to the more than 30 per cent of students coming from Gloucestershire and adjacent counties.

At Southampton Solent University, full-time students from low-income backgrounds can receive up to £1,000 for each year of study for courses costing £3,000, depending on the level of maintenance grant they receive. Two hundred and fifty pounds is also on offer to all first-year students who live in Hampshire or the Isle of Wight, and all students staying in halls of residence get a £250 accommodation voucher.

The university points out that this means that a local student from a family with an income of less than around £17,500 a year could receive up to £4,200, all non-repayable, in his or her first year, once both national and local sources of support are added together.

"As an institution, we are deeply committed to widening participation and keen to offer substantial support to low-income families," says pro-vice-chancellor John Latham. "We are also aware we have to attract students in a competitive market."

But would-be students are not always clear about what is on offer, he says. "We are doing a lot of work in terms of web material, and in trying to communicate to people that they can phone in and ask for advice. We have also visited local schools and colleges." Interestingly, though, reports from these visits indicate that pupils are not asking as many questions about finance as might have been expected, and the university has also been careful to make sure its all-round offer is attractive by looking to standards of accommodation and student support. "We have invested heavily in this," says Latham. "There is a centre, right in the foyer of our entrance, where students can go for all kinds of support."

Many universities are offering specific scholarships to those with good qualifications or sporting talents. Other institutions have gone for offers of free laptops, or even, in the case of the Arts Institute at Bournemouth, vouchers to buy bikes.

Sometimes specific subjects come with bursaries attached. At Canterbury Christ Church University, postgraduate students training to teach in secondary schools get £200 a year, with part-time students receiving a pro-rata equivalent. This is in addition to the grants of up to £500 a year for students receiving full or partial maintenance grants.

Under the new regulations, all institutions charging students fees of £3,000 a year must offer those on full maintenance grants at least a £300 bursary, but many are offering more. At Liverpool Hope University College, anyone whose family income is below £32,000 receives a bursary of £400.

At Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, all students who enrol this year get £1,000. "We took the view that the new regime might deter students from non-traditional families," says spokeswoman Pat Middleton. "And since we believe in widening participation, we did not want this. But it is early days to see the extent to which this is having an effect. Our application numbers are slightly down this year, but maybe the understanding of the new fees regime is not as good as it might be."

But at Newman College of Higher Education, in south-west Birmingham, where all students get £300 and those on a full maintenance grant get £1,100, enrolments on some courses have risen to 17 per cent. However, the college is unsure how much its bursaries have influenced that trend. It has also restructured its programmes and scored well in higher-education surveys. Kate Southworth, the vice-principal, says the college has always been successful in encouraging students from non-traditional backgrounds and from areas of social deprivation. "But we have found that on open days students have known very little about our bursaries," she says. "We see them as much as a commitment to social justice as a marketing opportunity."

Patricia Ambrose, executive secretary of GuildHE, which promotes higher-education colleges and some of the newest universities, says national assessment shows that students have "increased awareness about certain aspects of the new financial package, but not particularly about the national grants available".

"It seems students must have a better awareness of the bursary packages available from institutions," she says. But it is too soon for colleges and universities to have heard from this year's students how much bursaries mattered in their final choice of place, she thinks.

"However, you can't help but feel sorry for people having to get their heads round all this different information now, and wonder how on earth they weigh it up. In the end, they probably have to start with the course they want to do, and the area they want to do it in, and go from there," she says.

'I didn't want to worry about fees'

Kay Arigurimu, is taking a degree in sociology and social welfare at the University of Northampton. "I attended Northampton College and it was information I got there that told me about the level of fees at the University of Northampton. It was a big consideration when I was choosing where to study. As well as it being my local university, I didn't want to have to worry about the fees. I just want to concentrate on my studies, and the lower fees at Northampton help. I will also apply for the Northampton Advancement Bursary (a grant for local students)."