Some extra brass for empty pockets

Last year bursaries got off to a rocky start – many students didn't even know they were on offer. But now the teething problems have been ironed out. Gwenda Thomas reports
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The Independent Online

When Holly Corfield-Carr arrived at Cambridge University last October for her first year she was surprised to be given a bursary of £3,000. When Matthew Carr (no relation) was down to existing on £7 a week in his first year at Nottingham Trent University, he was amazed to discover from his university that he was entitled to a bursary of £600.

This largesse had nothing to do with being exceptional students, though both probably are, but because they came from low-income families and were receiving a government grant.

The university bursary scheme is one of the major planks of the new student funding system introduced last year, when top-up fees of £3,000 (now £3,070) first came in.

A bursary pot, estimated to reach around £350m by 2010, is being paid out by universities to students from low-income families who receive a government maintenance grant. The grant, currently £2,765 a year maximum, is given on a sliding scale depending on family income under £38,330. Bursaries for those receiving the full grant are typically £1,000. But it could be substantially more, as 19-year-old Corfield-Car discovered.

"I knew Cambridge was generous to its students," she says. "That's partly why I applied. With my mother working only part-time, I needed financial help, but I did not expect to be given a £3,000 bursary on top of the full government grant. That's £5,700. It has meant I haven't had to find a job and can concentrate on my studies.

"In fact, I had enough funds to join a friend and take a comedy show to the Edinburgh fringe," she adds, "far better for me than working the summer in a supermarket."

For Matthew Carr, also 19, studying forensic science, the bursary was a lifesaver. Matthew expected university to be expensive, but thought he would manage with a grant of £1,800, student loan of £3,300, and an interest-free loan from the bank of £1,200. But by the end of his first term, he was living on starvation rations and wondered if he could continue his studies. "In desperation I turned to the university for help," he says. "It was only then that I discovered I was eligible for a bursary. What a relief!"

What you receive as a bursary will depend on where you study. All bursary schemes are different and designed with the profile of the university's student population in mind.

Bradford, for example, with around 70 per cent of students eligible for grants, has opted for a very simple system. "We have a lot of students needing help, so we haven't gone for a headline grabbing amount for those with the lowest family income," says Sarah Verbickas, fees and bursaries officer. "We give £500 to all students receiving a full or partial grant in the first year, rising to £700 in the second year and £900 in the third. We also give £500 to foundation-year students, which I think is unusual. Students won't choose a course because of a bursary - it is not a selling tool – but it does help with retention."

Last year, the bursary scheme got off to a rocky start: students didn't seem to know bursaries were on offer, and the universities didn't know which students were eligible – mainly because students/families had missed the necessary boxes to be ticked on their application form for funding to enable assessment for a bursary. Universities had to resort to poster and email campaigns and not a little detective work to discover which students were eligible.

This year, the application form has been greatly improved, according to the Student Loan Company. However, Bradford is taking no chances. "The posters are up. 'If You Get a Grant You Get a Bursary', is the slogan that greets our students at registration." says Verbickas. "Students will also receive individual emails. Hopefully nobody will fall through the net."

At the University of Greenwich, where more than half the students are over 21 when they enrol, and a third over 25, the bursary scheme is targeted largely at mature students. The strategy is initially to help all students irrespective of family income by setting fees £500 lower than the maximum allowed. "You could say our bursary is built in," says Lorrie Currie, head of finance. "However, on top of that we also give £500 to all students who qualify for an element of the means-tested grant."

Leeds has taken a completely different approach focusing all their resources on the lowest end of the family income scale – those with £25,500 or less. Bursaries of £1,300 are given to students on a full grant and it could be more for first-generation students. Bursaries then decline on a sliding scale to a minimum of £310. Last year, around 13 per cent of first years were eligible for bursaries and around 60 per cent of those received the maximum award.

"The aim of our bursary scheme is to ensure no student leaves because of finances," says Ceri Nursaw, head of access and community engagement at Leeds. The university will be waiting until after the hullabaloo of freshers' week to target students with its bursary campaign.

Queen Mary, University of London, has chosen a simple two-level payment system: on a full grant you receive £1,024; on a partial grant it's £891, with a cut-off point at a family income of £33,769.

"We felt it was better to give more to fewer students and give something that would really make a difference, says Lesley Green, the student finance officer. "We gave 1,333 bursaries, which was more than half our first-year population."

What funding will I get?

Though the basics of the funding system are fairly simple to grasp, the difficulties lie in the detail and not everyone gets everything. Grants, loans, bursaries of course, fees, family income, family contribution, siblings, where you live, where you study and in some cases what you study – all go into your personal financial calculation and the resulting payout is uniquely yours. There is no such thing as a typical student, typical funding package, or a typical student debt. The top-up fee generation is still working its way through the system, but a debt on graduation of £20,000 to £30,000 has been predicted.

Fees and bursaries for the UK

* Universities can ask fees of up to £3,070 in 2007-08, and most do.

* There are no up-front fees to pay, unless you wish to do so.

* All students can take out a loan to cover fees (graduate endowment in Scotland).

* Government maintenance grants are given to students from lower-income families (called bursaries in Scotland).

* Bursaries are given by universities to all students on full grant; the amount varies depending on university (not Scottish universities).

* Most universities give bursaries to students who receive a partial grant (except in Scotland).

* All students are entitled to a student loan: the amount will depend on family income, government grant received and where you study.

* Families are expected to contribute the portion of loan not received unless the student is receiving a maintenance grant.

* Pay-back on money borrowed will be at the same rate across the UK and will be based on 9 per cent of salary earned over £15,000.

The differences: Wales

* Welsh students studying in Wales receive a fee grant of £1,845 which covers more than half their fees. Low-income bursaries are given for the first time this year


* Scottish students who are studying in Scotland pay no fees.

* Students in Scotland from other parts of the UK pay lower fees than in the rest of the UK.

* Endowment currently paid by Scottish students on graduation is likely to be scrapped.

* No bursaries given by universities to students from low-income families receiving a government maintenance grant.

Northern Ireland

* Higher government maintenance grant given.

Including the middle class

This year the cut-off point for maintenance grants is £38,300. Next year the government grants scheme is being extended to cover family incomes up to £60,000, but only new students in 2008-09 will be included. Most universities are still discussing what they will do about their bursary schemes. Some universities will find nearly all their new intake will be receiving a grant – Bradford estimates it will be 95 per cent of its students. However, Cambridge has already made its decision.

From next year, around a third of the Cambridge new intake are expected to qualify for support directly from the university. Those from homes with an income below £25,000 will receive an annual bursary of £3,150. This will then decrease on a sliding scale to £50 at an income of £60,000.

The bursary money is generally paid out in two tranches, the first around February, which is when fee money is paid over to universities by the Student Loan Company, and the second tranche at the beginning of the summer term.

There's a very helpful bursary website which provides an easy route to university bursary information: http://bursarymap.


And a little solid support

Travel cards, laptops and cash for bicycles are being offered to lure students, says Chris Michael

This year, an increasing number of universities and colleges are offering bursaries in kind. Whether it's a discount on a new bicycle, a travelcard, or a new computer, the idea is, don't just hand out money; give students what they need.

"Some institutions feel that bursaries for course materials or travel are very useful, and ensure that the money is spent in a way that will help the student in specific areas of their life," says David Barrett, assistant director at the Office For Fair Access (Offa), which was set up by the Government to implement the new funding regime.

In 2007, at least one of those specific areas is abundantly clear: wireless laptops. The College of St Mark and St John, Plymouth, is one of many institutions to provide all first-years with a wireless laptop computer. For those students receiving state support – an estimated 71 per cent of its 850 full-time, first-year entrants – the college will purchase the laptops outright. The cost, it estimates, will nudge £500,000.

Askham Bryan in York is another college underlining the value of IT. In addition to cash bursaries, it pledges to give laptops to all new entrants to full-time higher education. Wirral Metropolitan College provides lap-tops to all its 210 full-time students. Even some Scitt courses (School Centred Initial Teacher Training) are making laptops available to new teacher recruits. The Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication in Chislehurst is a little more cautious – rather than just dishing out Dells, it offers those students who are eligible for a full maintenance grant a fixed 25 per cent discount for a laptop bought through the college.

There was a stir last year when Bradford College offered students the chance to win an iPod. People asked what that had to do with education; others used it to question bursaries in kind. Shouldn't lower-income students be allowed to choose how to spend their money?

"A student can spend a cash bursary on what they want or need," says David Barrett. "So it is a straight choice for the institution to make. But often you find that where bursaries in kind are offered, they're offered alongside cash."

One institution doing that is Leicester University. Students can opt for a larger bursary or a smaller one with a range of useful reductions. For their first term, undergraduates whom the university determines are unable to rely on parental income can either take £1,000 in cash (as well as the minimum £300 bursary), or choose the package: the loan of a laptop (with an option to purchase later); a £200 rent reduction for university accommodation; a £100 local bus pass; £50 worth, each, of meals, printing and purchases at the university bookshop, and £150 worth of sports card and student union discounts. This all has a higher total value of £1,200.

The Arts Institute at Bournemouth has one of the more innovative programmes. It gives discounted bus services and offers lower-income students up to £150 toward the purchase of a new bike – as well as free high-visibility waistcoasts, puncture kits, use of bike locks and pumps.

Southampton Solent University offers a £250 accomodation voucher. And Barking College in London has a £200 package of bursaries towards materials and educational trips – business centres for business students, theatres for theatre students, and so on.

So, are these bursaries in kind effective? The jury's still out. The Arts Institute of Bournemouth says its bike-voucher scheme had fantastic take-up, but that this year it will be focusing on raising awareness, to ensure all students know about it.