Specialist subjects: Research the physics of financial support

Financial incentives are available in certain specialist subject areas, says Andy Sharman
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The looming introduction of top-up fees has brought universities out in a rash of bursaries. Many are purely based on financial criteria to aid those from lower-income backgrounds. But an increasing number of subject-specific awards are being made available by professional institutions.

The scholarships, which are available in areas like physics, engineering and construction, aim to help students finance their education and boost participation from under-represented groups.

From September, 300 sponsored undergraduates will begin degrees in physics thanks to a new scheme run by the Institute of Physics (IoP). Each student will receive around £1,000 a year.

"We developed it to try to attract interest from groups who don't normally do physics, for instance women," says Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at IoP. Just 20 per cent of UK physics undergraduates are women - not bad by European standards, but alarming when compared to maths and chemistry.

Some 33 approved English universities, from the old bastions of Oxbridge to newer breeds like the University of Central Lancashire, are part of the programme, along with Queen's University, Belfast. Each set their own admissions standards according to the general IoP criteria.

But 15 universities in top-up free Scotland, Ireland and Wales are also part of the scheme, proof that the bursaries weren't a direct response to variable fees. "We didn't say 'oh my goodness there are fees - we must have bursaries'," adds Professor Main. "But it's fair to say that the advent of top-up fees sharpened the debate about the financial implications of going to university."

The fees also raised the question of whether science subjects, which, thanks to lab work and field trips, prove more expensive for institutions and in general find it more difficult to attract students, could be further undermined.

"Over the last 20 years the number of students per se has rocketed," says Dr Peter Sear, physics admissions tutor at the University of Surrey, which offers the IoP bursaries. "But the number of students in physics has been roughly static."

Indeed, the subject has seen a sharp fall in the number of students at A-level, which has influenced the way the scheme has been directed. The IoP has been reaching out to pupils as young as 16.

"They [the IoP] will be looking at this as a long-term venture," says David Barrett, assistant director of OFFA (Office for Fair Access), an independent body set up to safeguard the interests of under-represented groups in higher education. "If a student from a low-income background is aware of the support, it may help to raise aspirations in relation to A-levels and careers more generally."

The possible careers are more diverse than one would think, with physics degrees carrying a heavyweight academic reputation and including oral and written presentation skills.

And despite the so-called "leaky pipeline" further up the ranks (only three per cent of physics professors are women), there is no pressure for those in receipt of bursaries to stay within the field. "Although it's not a life-changing amount of money," says Professor Main, "it is cash in pocket, with no strings attached."

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is offering similar awards to engineering students embarking upon one of 1,550 accredited courses in the UK. The Institution announced recently that £30,000 worth of FUSE (Funding Undergraduates to Study Engineering) bursaries is still available.

"With the introduction of top-up fees and the mounting financial burden on students," says IET chief executive Dr Alf Roberts, "we have increased the scholarships available for undergraduates. We are urging students who are still to make a final decision on which course to study or have been deterred by the perception of excessive debt to apply."

The IET awards are, like their IoP equivalents, aimed at marginalised groups. And as with physics degrees, a BEng or MEng qualification can open up a wide range of opportunities. Among its ranks of 150,000, the Institution boasts members in IT, software and communications technology.

"The IET is continuing to work closely with universities, careers advisers and student publications to promote these options," Dr Roberts adds. "With higher financial pressures, it is imperative that students seek out the assistance available to help them through their studies."

This year the Construction Skills Sector Council (ConstructionSkills), saw a five-fold upsurge in applications for its 150 Inspire scholarships, which offer students up to £9,000 and work-based training.

"Like many industries," says Paul Sykes, recruitment manager for ConstructionSkills, "we need to ensure we attract high calibre graduates and we are keen to do all we can to encourage young, bright people to pursue their vocations in an area that offers a multitude of career opportunities."