Old universities: How the elite are buying the brightest

Oxford and Cambridge have large budgets to attract talent
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The Independent Online

Back in the days of pounds, shillings and pence, when a small fraction of school leavers went to university, it would have been hard to predict that one day the treasurers of, say, Liverpool, Oxford and Sussex universities would be deciding how to distribute tens of millions of pounds to undergraduates? The financial side of learning was probably considered tasteless to mention as the port was passed round the dons' dining table.

Today, 35 years after decimalisation, all 40 or so of the pre-1992 universities have been swept along, with their former-polytechnic siblings, in the drive to bring the university experience to something approaching the majority of young people in Britain. That means big numbers and big money: money coming in, in the form of increased tuition fees and going back out in the form of bursaries to try to ensure no potential student is put off by fears of financial hardship.

The University of Liverpool, for example, expects to raise around £18m extra in the academic year starting this autumn when it puts its tuition fees up to £3,000, and one-third of this will be spread around in bursaries, given to students considered worthy of help, for a number of reasons.

Every institution has spent much of the last year thrashing out the exact details of their plans and documenting them in access agreements.

These agreements are published, and have had to be approved by, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), the public body set up to monitor universities' admissions policies and ensure that they use a fair proportion of their new income to ensure a broader social mix in their student populations.

Despite widespread differences in the finer points of universities' approaches, there are some common themes underpinning the bursaries policy everywhere.

The first is a means-testing element; in general students from poorer backgrounds get more money. Second, academic merit is rewarded, both retrospectively in A-level results and in the future, in performance at university. This is often targeted at particular subjects, such as maths and sciences, and means tested as well. The third element observed in most places is some favouring of students from social backgrounds where higher education is not a well established route for school leavers. Many students, of course, qualify in all three of the above areas and find themselves eligible for bursaries totalling several thousand pounds.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the largest bursaries are available from the most prestigious universities. Oxford University is among the most generous, with £10,000 available over a three year course for those from homes with less than £17,500 coming in every year. The distribution is £3,000 a year, plus an extra £1,000 in the first year to reflect start-up costs of moving away to study. Students with household incomes between £17,500 and £37,425 receive smaller bursaries on a sliding scale, the smallest being £100 a year.

The university's stated aim, in a scheme branded the Oxford Opportunity Bursaries, is to enable students from the poorest backgrounds, who will also qualify for a full higher education grant from the Government, to get through their studies without the need to have to take out a student loan. However, it may take considerable willpower for many 18-year-olds to forego taking on a student loan, for which they are perfectly entitled to apply.

On top of the university-wide scheme, individual colleges will continue to offer additional hardship and maintenance support and academic awards, totalling more than £3m annually.

It's a similar picture at Cambridge, with £3,000 a year on offer to the poorest students (no extra £1,000 in the first year), and the sliding scale ending at £250 a year for those from homes earning between £36,000 and £37,425.

Durham University, too, are offering a maximum of £3,000 a year for up to four years, and two smaller bursaries, of £1,500 and £600, for higher income bands, up to £27,378. The university administers the awards under the title the Durham Grant Scheme and reckons one in four home undergraduates will benefit.

Warwick University has opted for a scheme targeting students from the very poorest backgrounds, by limiting its grants of £3,000 to students from homes receiving selected categories of state benefit. The amount is made up by £1,000 in guaranteed funding bursary, and £2,000 in a means-tested scholarship.

The rest of the universities are giving annual bursaries covering the spectrum from around £3,000 to a few hundred pounds. No two schemes are identical, but most incorporate some element of sliding scale, often merged with an additional theme.

Bristol University has a top-up bursary of £1,000 for local students receiving a full Government grant, in addition to the basic bursary of £1,100 for those on a full grant and £700 for those receiving a smaller grant.

Similarly, Exeter University is offering 70 bursaries of £2,000 each to first years aged under 21 from partner schools and colleges in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, priority going to those from homes with an income under £30,000. This is on top of a bursary of up to £2,000 for all low income students from further afield.

The University of Kent, meanwhile, applies no means test to the local bursaries of £1,000 going to students from 21 partner schools and colleges. Again, this is in addition to a general bursary of between £1,000 and £250, means tested on a sliding scale.

A number of universities reward academic achievement. At Hull, for instance, students with good A-level results receive a scholarship of £1,500, on top of the bursary of up to £1,000 according to household income. Geography students need an A and two Bs at A Level to get the extra money, for example, while those starting a course in creative music technology qualify with three Bs. Physics also requires three Bs.

Liverpool University is targeting grants of £1,500 a year to those with two As and a B joining a selection of science and engineering courses, on top of means-tested bursaries of up to £1,300, and various finely tailored awards, aimed at students from backgrounds where there's no tradition of higher education.

Keele University's mix of bursaries includes several aimed at students arriving with top class A-levels. The most attractive is the vice chancellor's bursary, worth £4,000 to a select number with the very best results, regardless of family income.

King's College London has chosen an approach that gives an incentive to students to work hard during their first year, in order to have their bank accounts refreshed in the second. The 40 best performing students, largely based on exam results, will each receive £1,800 at the beginning of their second year at King's. This is on top of the basic, means-tested bursary, going to all freshers. Here, Kings has decided to tie the award directly to household income, by giving 50p for every £1 students receive in grant from the Government.

Profile: Sussex University

Unlike many institutions, Sussex University decided to distribute its bursary income in just two categories, both exclusively consistent with the widening participation aims of the Office for Fair Access guidelines. This means that none of the money in any way rewards academic merit, or the choice of a particular subject of study.

"We take the academic quality of our students pretty much as read," explains Sussex's academic registrar Owen Richards, "and treat the recruitment of students in shortage subjects as a separate issue."

This all makes for a simple and straightforward scheme, although one which implies a degree of subjectivity in the decision making underpinning the awards.

The Sussex Bursary is an automatic bursary of £1,000 going to all students whose family income is at or below £17,500, the Government's threshold for a full grant.

The Chancellor's Scholarship means that students with a family income of less than £24,000 are eligible to apply for one of 200 scholarships of £1,000. These are designed for students from families with no history of higher education. Written applications have to demonstrate that the individual has overcome, or is successfully coping with, "personal circumstances of disadvantage" either in the family or education sphere. Students already receiving the Sussex bursary are free to apply for this second award.

The category represents Sussex's decision not to adopt, as elsewhere, a sliding scale of addition bursary, to students with incomes between £17,500 and £37,500, but to target a substantial sum (£1,000) on a smaller group, i.e, those with family incomes less than £24,000 who are also judged to be particularly deserving cases.

Richards concedes that this has added to the workload of the students applying and his team of administrators, but argues that the result is assistance being directed to those whose circumstances most merit the help. All these bursaries have now been awarded.

Sussex estimate that, in total around £570,000 will be distributed in these bursaries this year, going to approximately 560 students, representing 28 per cent of the first year undergraduate intake.

Sussex took the decision to send out the money in two instalments, the first being in January 2007. This was a deliberate decision, the rationale being that most students from less well off backgrounds will probably already be receiving Government grant money and student loan instalments in October. Delaying the bursary element, it's argued, might, in the long run, prevent the danger of students running out of money before Christmas!

Profile: Sheffield University

This year Sheffield University expects to pay out just short of £1m in bursaries, spread among a third of the 3,500 to 4,000 first year undergraduates due to arrive in October.

Overseeing the whole operation is Andrew West, the university's director of student services, who is leading a team of administrators to cope with the new workload. "The bursaries' implementation programme has been part of my life for many months," he explains. "We are at the operational end of making the scheme real when the students get here."

Sheffield is following the pattern of many similar institutions in awarding bursaries under three broad headings.

Firstly, student household income: £650 for incomes under £16,000 and £400 for incomes between £16,000 and £33,000.

Secondly, prior academic achievement and whether the student is studying a priority subject (engineering, maths, chemistry, physics and astronomy, computer science, information studies, archaeology or a course at the school of health and related research). These bursaries are between £250 and £1,550 depending on household income.

Thirdly, students coming via the university's various outreach schemes, designed to identify school age pupils from backgrounds where higher education is rare.

Students can receive money under all three headings, so the maximum total bursary any one student could receive is £3,000.

Given the university's proximity to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, West says that particular importance is placed on the scheme's outreach element

"Our university has been in the vanguard in this sort of work. We have a long record of encouraging local school children to think about university, whether or not they end up coming to Sheffield."

The scheme has also been designed to put the minimum load onto students.

"We are taking the initiative," explains West. "We draw the data and put it through the computerised assessment machine."

The first cheques will be sent out to students in freshers' week."We are going to do this early, and our aim is that the first instalments of bursary payments will be made as soon as the students register with us on campus."