New universities tempt students with bursaries and scholarships

If you fancy a gamble, why not apply to Middlesex University, where you could end up winning £30,000? Harriet Swain reports
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The Independent Online

Feeling lucky? Maybe you should put Middlesex University top of your Ucas list. It's offering £30,000 to five full-time UK students whose names are picked in a ballot, so long as they made Middlesex their first choice of institution.

Feeling sporty? What about the University of East London (UEL)? It's offering achievement scholarships of £1,000 each to first-year students who can demonstrate sporting prowess. Feeling environmentally friendly? The Arts Institute at Bournemouth could be your best bet. Study there and you could be eligible for £150 worth of vouchers to buy a bike, and £50 a year to spend on it afterwards.

Of course, the only thing you should really be feeling is happy with your choice of university, which is likely to depend more on course, location, accommodation and general feel than any financial enticement.

But it's worth looking closely at the variety of what's on offer, not only so you have a good idea of how much you'll have to spend in the student bar - or bicycle shop - but because it can tell you something about the ethos of the institution you've chosen.

This is particularly true for newer universities with less established reputations. Many see the new fee/bursary regime as an opportunity to be talked about - and in the way they want.

What most don't want is to be seen as cheap. The fear of looking cut-price means relatively few have decided to charge below the £3,000 maximum fee.

For Leeds Metropolitan University, which did decide to go down this route and is to charge the lowest fee for full-time UK students, at £2,000, this fear was overcome by the lure of simplicity. Deborah Davey, the university's financial support and advice manager, says it will make things easier for both sides. Students will know exactly what the fee will be, no matter what their parental income, while the university will have fewer costs because it won't be dealing with a complicated bursary system.

Communicating a simple message also drove the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) to give bursaries worth £1,000 to students from households where the principal earner's income is less than £60,000. This will cover around 95 per cent of its student body. "It was deliberate on our part with a view to encouraging more students to go into higher education and apply to UCLan," says Ian McMillan, the university's director of students.

Most university schemes share the same sentiment, offering students from the lowest-earning households the largest amounts. Particularly generous is Luton, which is offering £300 to every full-time honours degree student regardless of income and up to £1,750 to those receiving government maintenance grants.

Other groups underrepresented at university will also win out. UEL is offering to pay the difference between home and overseas fees to 50 students from refugee backgrounds, while the University of Winchester will give extra help to those who have been in care. The University of Plymouth is giving £500 grants to mature students who answer certain criteria, while five disabled athletes a year studying at the University of Brighton will receive bursaries of £1,000 each.

Many new universities have strong local ties and have chosen to offer a bit more to local students. Northampton University, which has opted for a £2,500 fee, also offers a Northampton Advancement Bursary, giving £500 extra per year to students from the Midlands and East Anglia.

Wolverhampton University is offering £1,000 off the first-year fees to school leavers living in the West Midlands if they have taken part in special activities designed to increase their awareness of higher education. Plymouth is making £500 awards to students from its compact schools, while Liverpool John Moores is offering £1,000 for students within its school/college network nominated as capable but in danger of failing to fulfil their potential.

In spite of all these initiatives, improving access is not such a big issue for the new universities because many were working on it long before fees came in, and their student bodies are already relatively diverse. Many of their students will feel better off next year - if they don't mind the thought of debt - thanks to the new maintenance grants. What these universities want to improve is the number of high-flying students they attract.

This means many have chosen to offer scholarships on academic merit instead of, or as well as, need. John Moores is offering six annual awards of £10,000 to academically gifted students. Brighton is offering £1,000 to second and third-year students who have proved their capabilities.

Others are offering awards in particular subjects. Bath Spa is offering means-tested scholarships for specific science-based subjects, while Coventry is offering £2,000 scholarships in several areas, including animation, forensic science and lifestyle management. At UCLan, Excellence Scholarships will go to students excelling in areas where national skills shortages exist.

It is not only your academic talent that could boost your bank balance. Middlesex is offering two £30,000 scholarships to full-time UK undergraduates tipped for Olympic success. UEL is offering scholarships worth £1,000 each to first-year students whose CVs show evidence of impressive cultural, sporting or citizenship achievements before joining the university.

But like many others, UEL doesn't want to concentrate all the cash on students when they arrive, it wants to encourage them to stay. It's therefore offering awards of at least £500 in kind to students who successfully complete their first semester and enrol on the second. These will pay for books, academic equipment, travel costs, or campus rent and field trips, depending on individual needs.

The University of Gloucestershire is also encouraging students to stick at it by offering a fee rebate of 10 per cent per year, as well as a 20 per cent fee discount for those who pay in advance, while other institutions are offering discounts to those who have progressed from studying lower level qualifications with them.

No picture has emerged of what universities have decided to do about fees and bursaries for foundation degrees and HNDs, according to the access watchdog Offa, although a spokesman said that institutions seemed to be charging slightly less for these qualifications. Also still to emerge are details of arrangements with business over offers of cash, work placements or job interviews. While UCLan, for example, has secured a promise of scholarships from Booths Supermarket, it is still negotiating with others. And no university is entirely clear how things will work in future - whether students will be lured by a laptop, tempted by a travelcard or hard cash.

Marie Owens, director of communications at Middlesex, says the aim of the Middlesex First lottery was to be eye-catching "because the market looked complicated". But she admits that it won't be only the students who are gambling. "It's a big unknown world out there," she says.