First the good news. More bursaries are available than ever before to help students from low-income households fund their way through university – and, unlike previously, the lion's share of the money is actually reaching those who need it.
The bad news is they are now so numerous and come from so many different sources that the investment in time and effort required to find the right one (or ones) for you almost justifies a degree-level qualification in itself.
From intelligence agencies and the armed forces to charities and small family trusts, the Royal Meteorological Society to the Armenian General Benevolent Union, hundreds of institutions are targeting grants at students who meet widely varying criteria – some needs-based, others contingent on academic achievement. And that's quite apart from the £300m in bursaries allocated to undergraduates each year from universities' own coffers.
The proliferation of substantial means-tested handouts has thrown lifelines to tens of thousands of people who would otherwise have struggled to afford university. At the same time, merit-based scholarships have boosted subjects, such as engineering, that had been failing to recruit the numbers to meet industry demand. But the ever more bewildering variety of awards (and awarding bodies) – and the wild disparities in the size of payments made to students from comparable backgrounds by different universities – has strengthened calls for ministers to introduce a single national scheme.
The current regime came into force three years ago as a means of ameliorating any negative impact the introduction of variable tuition fees might have on poorer students. Since last year, universities have guaranteed average bursaries of £900 to students from households earning £25,000 or less. But the size of handouts can vary wildly between institutions, with the 20 Russell Group universities offering £1,764 to each eligible student on average, compared to a typical £714 apiece from the 28 institutions in the Million+ grouping, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).
With bursaries subject to the whims of a free market, if you're off to university you face a baffling task finding the right ones for you. If you receive the full £2,906 maintenance grant, the one thing you can be sure of is that any university charging the maximum top-up fee of £3,225 (as most do) will offer you an annual bursary of at least £319. As of this year, unless you ticked an "opt-out" box on your UCAS form, your financial details will have been shared with your chosen universities, so they should automatically notify you of any other means-tested bursaries for which you are eligible.
One red-brick university courting poorer students is Manchester, which spends 29 per cent of its income from fees on bursaries – more than any other institution bar Oxford. It offers several means-tested grants, including a £3,000-a-year advantage scholarship for straight-A students from poorer backgrounds. Text messages are sent to all freshers entitled to bursaries to ensure they claim them. Julian Skyrme, head of widening participation, explains: "We want to be open and accessible to all able students, regardless of background."
Of the Million+ universities, Derby offers some of the most targeted bursaries. Students from the poorest households automatically receive £830 a year, with top-ups of £300-£400 added for those from specific local postcode areas or less high-performing schools. Ben Bailey, the student support centre manager, says bursaries have cut the number of students dropping out due to financial hardship: "We've seen an encouraging increase in retention levels. The number of students citing financial factors as their reason for leaving has gone down."
Meanwhile, elite universities are offering ever more generous packages of financial support, in an attempt to address government demands that they do more to attract applicants from low-income households – a call reiterated last month by the former minister Alan Milburn in his social mobility report. Both Oxford and Cambridge offer more or less unlimited numbers of £3,000-a-year bursaries for the poorest students. Professor John Rallison, pro-vice chancellor in charge of recruitment at Cambridge, says: "It's important the experience of all our students is the same. It would be quite wrong for poorer students to have a totally different experience to people from better-off backgrounds."
Poorer students' welfare is also central to Warwick's offerings – which, unlike most income-related awards, are dubbed "scholarships" (the term usually applied to subject-specific grants awarded on merit). Everyone from families earning £36,000 or under gets a £1,800-a-year scholarship, while additional payments worth £2,000 – funded by donations from ex-students – go to those whose families receive income-related state benefits.
Not all the most generous bursaries are means-tested. Each November, HSBC gives four £30,000 awards to undergraduates who convince it in a short online application they deserve them purely on the basis of ambition. Similarly, bigger scholarships often involve commercial or state sponsorship. Kent, Southampton, and Cardiff offer £1,000-plus a year to students reading subjects addressing skills shortages varying from sports therapy to civil engineering, while some direct public-sector grants are even more lucrative.
The Royal Navy not only pays 30 undergraduates £5,500 a year to study engineering: it hands them £12,000 when they join its ranks. Both the Navy and Army offer annual scholarships of £14,000-16,000 to those on related medical, dental and veterinary courses. And 500 undergraduates a year apply for one of 45 hush-hush summer placements at GCHQ, where they train as software, telecoms, and "research" specialists on pro rata salaries of £18,300.
The increasingly patchwork nature of this awards "system" has led to calls for a standardised bursary scheme from the National Union of Students. Its concerns were reflected in a report last autumn by the Hepi, which found the size of awards had less to do with family income than the business plans and resources of the universities where they studied. Bahram Bekhradnia, its director, argues: "A university that attracts a lot of poor students will only be able to afford small bursaries, whereas those with fewer poor students will be able to offer bigger ones."
Only this month, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee of MPs criticised universities for inadequately publicising their bursaries, and suggested a percentage of the income they generate from variable fees be pooled and redistributed as additional grants to the poorest students.
Not everyone is convinced by such ideas. The Office for Fair Access (Offa) – the government agency responsible for increasing the number of university students from under-represented groups – insists the existing system works, for all its imperfections. This time last summer, The Independent revealed that, in 2006-7 (the first year of bursaries) £12m of the money earmarked for disadvantaged students went unclaimed. But figures show that, in 2007-8, nine out of 10 students received the money to which they were entitled. Estimates suggest take-up in 2008-9 was nearer 96 per cent.
David Barrett, Offa's assistant director, believes bursaries have helped prevent top-up fees deterring poor students from going to university – but standardising them might undermine efforts to increase the number attending Oxbridge: "The intention is that institutions with the furthest to go in attracting a more socially diverse student body should offer higher bursaries to students from lower-income families than institutions already successful at widening participation – providing a financial incentive to appropriately qualified applicants who may not have considered attending a more selective institution."
How much can you get?
In 2009-10, all undergraduates receiving full grants (£2,906) qualify for university bursaries worth at least £319 to top them up to the level of standard course fees (£3,225).
Most universities offer needs-based bursaries worth up to £900, with some paying £3,000-plus. Details of these and any subject-specific scholarships (based on merit) are usually published on their websites.
To find the award package that is best suited to you, start by visiting a website where you can search across subject areas, geographical regions, or funding organisations. The best ones are Directgov's Bursary Map – at bursarymap.direct.gov.uk – and Scholarship Search ( www.scholarship-search.org.uk).
'The money made a big difference'
When Caroline Booth, 20, achieved straight As at A-level and secured her place to read for a Master of Modern Languages at Manchester, she triumphed against the odds. Not only had neither of her parents been to university, but she hailed from a Salford comprehensive battling to improve its exam pass rate.
"I came here through the Manchester access programme, which recruits students from state schools that don't perform so well. Because of my A-level results, I also receive a £1,000-a-year achievement bursary. The money made a big difference. I don't qualify for a grant, so without the scholarship I would have needed a loan, but my parents' earnings mean I would only receive the minimum. My brother went to university just before me. He's on the old fees system, where you pay up front, so my parents haven't been able to help me."
'It gave me breathing space'
As the son of two graduates, Tom Chigbo was never in any doubt about wanting to go to university. But the 21-year-old, who became president of the Cambridge students' union this summer after completing his geography degree, is certain he would have had to turn down his place without the aid of a bursary.
"I did well at school, and won a place at the London Oratory, but money was always tight. My father, who was Nigerian, died when I was 11, and I was brought up by my mother in a council flat in London. I was encouraged to apply to Cambridge, and because I was on the full grant I received the maximum bursary of £3,000 a year from the Newton Trust. It gave me breathing space, and meant I didn't have to ask my mother for anything. Without the bursary I probably couldn't have come."Reuse content