It is amazing but true that one quarter of students and parents have not heard of the bursaries that each university has to provide to students in need. So, three years after the controversial top-up fees were introduced, along with a complicated paraphernalia of loans and scholarships, thousands of students don't have the information they need to choose the institution that is best for them.
This finding comes today in research by the Office for Fair Access (Offa). Carried out by Professor Claire Callender of Birkbeck, University of London, and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, it is the first big national research study into the issue.
Not only are many parents and students ignorant about bursaries but those who do know about them don't realise how useful they are in choosing a university. Universities offer differing amounts of money to different groups of students. Manchester University, for example, gives £5,000 a year to gifted students from families with annual incomes of £17,000 or less and Middlesex gives five awards of £10,000 a year, to name just two.
The study shows that only two-fifths of the students said they had sought information on bursaries before sending in their UCAS application form. Therefore, many students are not taking bursaries into account when making a crucial life-changing choice.
"The take-up of bursaries is working quite well now," says Professor Callender. "The real issue is to what extent bursaries are affecting which university students apply to and which they choose. They were meant to enable universities to attract different types of student but this is not happening as it should."
Offa's director, Sir Martin Harris, is delighted that bursaries have helped – along with grants and loans – to maintain university applications, particularly from poorer students. "It is clear, however, that young people and their advisers need to know more sooner about the financial support that's available. Schools and universities must work more closely to make sure that potential students receive financial and academic advice at a significantly early moment so that university options remain as open as possible."
The scope and clarity of information provided by universities and colleges about bursaries leave a lot to be desired, says the study. Almost one-half of students (44 per cent) thought there was too little information about how to apply for a bursary, though higher education institutions think they provide enough.
Many universities need to do more, says the study. Three-quarters of students and two-thirds of parents did not realise that universities and colleges must give a minimum bursary to students receiving the full state maintenance grant. And, almost half the students surveyed (47 per cent) thought bursaries were one-off payments given to students in their first year.
Offa has used the research to produce guidance. To get through to applicants before they fill in their UCAS forms, it calls on universities to target their information not only at students but also at higher-education advisers in schools and sixth-form colleges. Advisers play an important role in helping students. For example, just over one-third of students had found out about bursaries through their school or colleges. But, of the advisers questioned, 11 per cent had not heard of bursaries and did not know they existed.
The guidance calls on universities to target parents to receive information because they also play a big part in student's decisions. Two-thirds of parents believed there was not enough information about bursaries. Offa points to the University of Nottingham, which, together with Nottingham Trent University and New College Nottingham holds family suppers for potential students in Year 10 and 11 and their parents. At these dinners it hands out information about bursaries.
The guidance asks universities to provide clearer information about who qualifies for bursaries and when students will receive them. More than half of students thought bursaries were one-off payments they got in their first year or did not know when they got them.
Universities should let students know earlier whether they qualify for a bursary, says Offa. And they should monitor bursary take-up rates as the London School of Economics does. The LSE found that the take-up rate was lower among second-year than first-year students. This was because some students did not realise they had to reapply for a bursary each year. As a result, the LSE now distributes flyers at registration events for second years.
Finally, Offa recommends simplifying bursaries and scholarships because more than half of parents and advisers think they are too complex. The University of Reading, for example, reduced the number of income threshold bands for its main bursary to make the scheme easier to understand.