Have fees hit numbers?

It's the first year of the new funding regime, yet there is little sign of a drop-off, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

tudents starting full-time higher education this year are the guinea pigs of a new higher education funding experiment. But being a guinea pig isn't all bad news.

"The money was a nice surprise because I didn't expect this much," says Joseph Morris, 18, who will receive bursaries adding up to £2,778, almost covering the £3,000 price tag on the first year of his BA (Hons) in 3D Product Design at the University of Wolverhampton.

He admits to a certain amount of confusion about the financial arrangements. "I was a bit worried about money because I didn't know how much things would cost or what I would be entitled to," says Morris, who is from Wolverhampton and will be living at home. "But I looked at some leaflets and we had people coming into school to talk to us about bursaries."

Joseph is benefiting from two separate bursaries: Wolverhampton's Start Right programme, which is calculated on household income, and a one-off £1,000 payment as part of Wolverhampton's regional cashback scheme, designed to widen access to higher education in the local area.

Yet if universities are hoping their carefully crafted bursaries will secure more bums on seats, they may, this year at least, be disappointed. Students are either disinterested or disengaged when it comes to working their way through the complex matrix of financial support on offer.

"I wanted to study at Wolverhampton because I found they did the best course so I didn't really look around after that," remembers Joseph. "I didn't know about bursaries or anything like that."

This is echoed by admissions officers up and down the country, who report students going through clearing were surprisingly disinterested in the bursary packages on offer. Nor, it seems, did dire predictions of a last-minute fire sale materialise, with universities seeking to outgun one another in the bursary stakes to win students and thus safeguard their funding from the Higher Education Funding Council.

Sarah Verbickas, student bursaries officer at the University of Bradford, says the university didn't receive a single enquiry about bursaries during clearing. "We had lots of contingency plans in place, about how to answer enquiries, what to do if students wanted to negotiate or other institutions, particularly local ones, tried to do something different at the last minute," she says.

And if local rivals had upped their financial aid to win students? "We would have had to change our offer too but we would change it for everyone, not just those in clearing," says Verbickas. "But we didn't have a single enquiry about this. Not one."

She doesn't expect this to last. As students - and, perhaps more importantly, their parents - become more aware of the new financial arrangements, they are likely to factor an institution's generosity into their decision-making.

This year's intake - the guinea pigs - has faced a maze of bursaries, scholarships and awards. Verbickas says some have asked her to define the "bursary".

"Even the language of this new system is confusing because the Government talks about grants and the universities are talking about bursaries and scholarships," says the university rep.

It is little wonder some students are pleasantly surprised to find they are entitled to extra money when they arrive. But some may struggle financially in the coming years because they are unaware of their full entitlements, or others may, perhaps mistakenly, be priced out of higher education altogether.

Wolverhampton's bursary office believes many students who might qualify for its £1,000 regional cashback bursary risk missing out because they are unaware of their entitlement - although head of higher education advice Keith Hall stresses eligible students can apply even once they have enrolled. "We are spending half a million on the regional cashback this year and expect that to double next year as people find out more about it," says Hall.

Little wonder the guinea pigs have been confused. All universities charging the full £3,000 top-up fee must use a proportion of the resulting income to provide financial support for those from lower-income or socially disadvantaged backgrounds: these deals are negotiated and policed by the Office for Fair Access. But every university is packaging its support differently.

The University of Bradford is trying to reach as many students as possible rather than going for headline numbers, with about 70 per cent of its intake qualifying for a bursary. All students at Bedfordshire who qualify for the Government's maintenance grant will receive a minimum bursary of £300, with those from lowest-income families eligible for £1,750. Gloucestershire offers a 20 per cent discount to those who pay the full fee up front, which seems designed to widen participation from those from better-off families.

Many universities also offer scholarships. Some, such as Coventry's STAR Scholarship, worth £2,000 a year, targets particular courses while others, such as De Montfort University's Academic Scholarships (£1,000 per year), apply to all those with A-level grades of BBC and above.

Then there are those universities that decided not to charge the full £3,000. This is a simple message for students to grasp - come here, pay less - and appears to have paid off for Leeds Metropolitan, which is charging £2,000 and has seen applications increase by almost 13 per cent, bucking the national trend.

"It's not just the fees," says a loyal spokeswoman. "We've also invested in better facilities and our portfolio of courses, which has helped play a factor in improved recruitment."

The University of Greenwich, which is also charging a discounted rate of £2,500, also reports that applications are well up on the same time last year.

As has been well publicised, student numbers are down this year compared to the pre-top-up fee bumper crop of 2005/06. Some universities have fared well - Coventry, for example, is delighted with a 6.2 per cent increase in students accepting places - but no university contacted for this piece was willing to admit to a shortfall in numbers. Those who couldn't cite increased or at least static recruitment numbers dodged the question, pointing out that term has yet to start and clearing lines are still open.

"We are still taking applications for courses and students haven't enrolled yet so we don't have a clear picture of numbers yet," says a spokeswoman for the University of Central Lancashire, rumoured to be facing a shortfall in numbers.

One thing is clear: as students become increasingly discerning customers and more savvy about the new financial arrangements, institutions are likely to push financial incentives to sell their courses to them, guinea pigs no more.