Let the bursary battle begin...

With top-up fees, Britain is seeing the beginning of a market in student bursaries, says Dick Davison
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The Independent Online

One of the unintended - or was it? - consequences of the raising of university tuition fees from next September, and the Government's requirement of universities to introduce their own packages of financial support for students, is the modest boost it has given to market competition in higher education.

Every university has had to come up with a programme of compulsory support bursaries for low-income students, and targeted measures to help other low-participation groups, to complement the financial assistance which will reach an estimated 55 per cent of students through the Government's new maintenance grants. But it is clear that universities have also had a canny eye on the opportunities the new regime presents, not just to attract more candidates, but to snap up some of the best available talent amongst new undergraduates.

The newly renamed Anglia Ruskin (formerly Polytechnic) University, for example, is offering all full-time students £1,000 "cashback" in their first year followed by another £500 in each further year of study, regardless of financial circumstances, but subject to satisfactory progress on their course.

Sunderland University makes a similar offer. Its justification for this indiscriminate largesse is that an estimated 85 per cent of its student body already comes from low-income and lower socio-economic groups.

The University of Central Lancashire, in its agreement with the Government's Office for Fair Access (OFFA), dresses up its offer of a £1,000-a-year bursary to all new students as a means of cutting the red tape of means-testing and ensuring "that students can be 100 per cent confident of securing a bursary". Middlesex University takes a more familiar marketing approach, offering five £10,000 "Middlesex first" scholarships, on a lottery basis, to applicants who have made it their first Ucas choice.

And it is not only new universities which are using the new student support packages as a marketing opportunity. Traditional academic scholarships, designed to attract the best available talent, are making a comeback in elite universities - including Bristol, Royal Holloway and Keele - which are more accustomed to having a strong field of candidates to select from.

The link to academic achievement is made by a number of universities, among them generous offers from Liverpool John Moores, Birmingham, Manchester, Oxford and Imperial College.

In total, about a third of universities are establishing new scholarship schemes based on academic merit, ranging from around £500 to £5,000. Some of these schemes are aimed exclusively at lower-income groups, but well over half are to be awarded purely on merit.

Nevertheless, it is clear that most of the £300m that universities have set aside from the additional income they will receive from increased tuition fees next year is being targeted at the most financially needy students.

Initial analysis by OFFA showed that all universities intending to charge the full annual fee of £3,000 will offer bursaries of more than the required minimum of £300. Four out of five are offering bursaries to students whose residual family income is between £15,000 to £22,000, while 70 per cent are offering bursaries to students with income thresholds of up to £33,000.

Many are using their financial support packages to address other priorities. Some specifically look to encourage students living locally, among them Liverpool, Kent, Nottingham Trent and Southampton Solent. Others will reward entrants who have come through their own sponsored access schemes, including Bolton, Sheffield and Kingston.

The study of strategically important subjects - science, medicine, engineering, computing and languages among them - is also encouraged by many universities' awards.

Middlesex tops the list of universities offering sports scholarships, with two £10,000 awards to potential 2012 Olympians, but others encouraging sport include Glamorgan, De Montfort, Loughborough, Swansea and Sussex. And Brighton University is offering five awards a year to elite disabled athletes, an initiative which emphasises that access for disadvantaged groups, the encouragement of excellence and the establishment of a niche marketing opportunity can go hand in hand.