Research the different university bursaries and you could tap into thousands of pounds

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The Independent Online

Tuition fees are now established, so racking up substantial debts over three or four years of university study is part and parcel of the undergraduate experience for most students. The size of such debts, however, can be reduced for those students who qualify for bursaries and scholarships.

The difficulty is that every university offers a different mix of such grants, which makes the task of finding out who offers what, and on what criteria – while bearing in mind the courses on offer – is a feat in itself. But the job of gathering and comparing such information has been made slightly easier by a government-funded website (bursarymap.direct.gov.uk) that links directly to the relevant information for every institution. Although a few minutes browsing can make the head spin, there are a few common underpinning themes. First, every university aims a grant – usually called a bursary, and on a sliding scale – at students from low- and medium-income families.

The most prestigious universities have the most to give away. So, Oxford offers first-year undergraduates from homes where the income is less than £18,000 an "Oxford Opportunity Bursary" of £4,100 (plus smaller amounts, decreasing to £200 to those where family income is under £50,000). Cambridge's corresponding maximum and minimum figures are £3,250 and £50.

Oxford Brookes University, in contrast, has a top bursary of £1,800, for those from homes where income is less than £5,000, and a minimum of £150 for the £34,000 to £36,000 bracket. These amounts appear on the generous side, in comparison to other former polytechnics around the country. The maximum means-tested bursary at the University of Central Lancashire is £500, while Kingston and Staffordshire universities both offer a maximum of £1,000.

After Oxbridge, it is the 20 red brick Russell Group universities that offer the highest bursaries. Last year students from low-income families received an average grant of £1,790.

The 1994 group of universities – the small and beautiful institutions such as Exeter and Sussex – offer bursaries that broadly fall between the Russell Group and the former polytechnics. Students starting at Lancaster University this October will be eligible for between £500 and £1,315, while those going to Exeter University stand to receive anything from £1,500 to £750.

But everywhere you look, the devil is in the detail, with the different approaches reflecting contrasting methods of achieving the same goal; namely, ensuring that no student is put off a degree course because of financial worries.

At Sussex University, for example, a maximum annual bursary of £1,000 for those from the poorest households is topped up by a "Chancellor's Scholarship" of a further £1,000 for students who are the first in their families to go to university.

The second common theme is reward for academic achievement, sometimes combined with means-tested support. Birmingham University follows this line by augmenting its basic grant of £820 aimed at students from modest backgrounds with an extra £1,260 for A-level grades of at least two As and a B.

At some universities the qualification criteria for this extra help varies between faculties, and others dangle a financial carrot in front of these freshers by delaying such help until the end of the first year, thereby making it dependent on performance. In parallel, nearly all universities try to attract the very brightest talent, regardless of means, by offering a limited number of grants to the academic cream of the intake.

A third common ground for awarding extra funding is geography, with most universities encouraging local students to start degree courses. Bristol University, for example, awards a bursary of £1,075 to students with a BA or BS postcode, while the University of Gloucester casts its net a little more widely, offering a bursary of £1,000 to students from 40 schools and colleges in the region, stretching from Swindon in the south, to Worcester in the north.

In addition to these three main categories, all universities also provide a smaller numbers of scholarships to students excelling in sport, music or other artistic pursuits. And some also reward undergraduates who have shown community commitment by doing notable voluntary work.

Because there's no limit to the amount of grants an individual can receive, the student who meticulously reads every detail of the funding package of their chosen university will not be wasting their time.

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