The big bursary bust-up

The new access regulator has got off to a bad start with universities by telling them how much to spend, says Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online

Last week, Radio 4 listeners woke up to the dulcet tones of Sir Martin Harris, the director of fair access, telling us that if universities were to invest 20 per cent of their top-up fee money in bursaries, £200m could be generated for the less well off.

Last week, Radio 4 listeners woke up to the dulcet tones of Sir Martin Harris, the director of fair access, telling us that if universities were to invest 20 per cent of their top-up fee money in bursaries, £200m could be generated for the less well off.

"This will be money put directly into the pockets of students and will be a major step towards making higher education available to all those who have the potential to benefit from it," he said.

At a stroke he set an expectation, whether he intended to or not. Universities, especially those in the South of England that take substantial numbers of well-heeled young people from high-achieving schools, will be expected to balance their intake with significant expenditure on the new bursaries. Goodbye university autonomy, hello state interference.

Some vice-chancellors are angry and very worried, particularly those who were planning to spend less than 20 per cent of the top-up fee money on the bursaries. One said he thought Sir Martin was making up his own policy as he went along. "He is trying to make the 20 per cent an expectation," he added. "I think it's outrageous that he should make such a major request of everybody."

The row reflects the angst that accompanied the passage of the top-up fee legislation which almost brought down Tony Blair's government. The vast majority of vice-chancellors supported the PM.

But in return for an increased income stream from students in the shape of top-up fees, they were forced to accept the setting up of Offa (the Office for Fair Access). It was said to be Gordon Brown's idea and was unwelcome to the universities because it infringed the principle that they should be able to spend their money as they see fit. The Chancellor clearly thought that Offa was a good thing. He is famously critical of Britain's top universities for failing to take enough students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hence his exploitation of the Laura Spence case.

Anyway the government had a big problem with backbench Labour MPs, many of whom opposed top-up fees. The creation of Offa was a sop to them because it would ensure that poorer youngsters were not deterred from applying to university by the new fees.

Meanwhile, the vice-chancellors were reassured that Offa would not be too bossy. During the Higher Education Bill's stormy passage through Parliament they were told that they would have to give £300 a year in bursaries to the poorest students but otherwise it was up to them what else they did to widen access. "Universities are now being expected to spend more than this minimum," said one vice-chancellor. "This is much more prescriptive than the Government talked about when it put together the deal with the universities and secured strong support for the Bill."

Although some vice-chancellors believe that Sir Martin is inventing his own policy, others think that he is doing the Government's bidding in bouncing universities into spending 20 per cent on bursaries. Certainly, Kim Howells, the new Higher Education minister, is pleased. Any Labour minister would be happy to take credit for persuading the universities to spend more than they had intended on helping poorer students.

Sir Martin himself says he has been misquoted. "I think people didn't read things very carefully," he says. "The illustrative example I gave was a sector-wide hypothesis. There is absolutely no requirement on any institution to put any given proportion into scholarships or bursaries.

"What I said was hypothetical. If 80 per cent of institutions charge the £3,000 top-up fee and if those choose to put 20 per cent of that income into bursaries, that would bring in £200m."

Sir Martin is a seasoned player in the higher-education field. Vice-chancellor of Manchester University until this year, and before that vice-chancellor of Essex University, he has spent a lifetime in the university world. So he certainly knows about universities' sensitivities. But he may not be so accomplished at public relations.

If Sir Martin says that he was only talking hypothetically about universities spending 20 per cent on bursaries, we must take him at his word. But it was naive of him to think that a press release devoted largely to that figure would not be interpreted as sending out a strong signal, say his critics.

Roger Brown, director of Southampton Institute, which has just won university college status, says that if Offa is thinking in terms of universities spending an average of 20 per cent on bursaries, then it should consult with the sector on that. "I think higher-education institutions should just take Offa on," he says. "They should decide what they can afford, what they need to do and take Sir Martin on publicly. At the end of the day I think he is a paper tiger."

Southampton Institute plans to charge the £3,000 top-up fee, like almost every other higher-education institution in England, and it will be offering bursaries of more than £300 to the poorest students. But it will not be spending 20 per cent of its top-up fee income on bursaries.

The same goes for the University of East London (UEL). Having been against top-up fees, the university is not declaring yet what it will be doing when the new regime begins in 2006. But it is expected to charge the £3,000 fee. "We need the money," says its vice-chancellor, Mike Thorne. Scholarships will be given in kind, he thinks. So, although UEL will have to pay the minimum £300 bursaries, it will be looking to support students by giving them a personal computer or equipment to help with their studies.

But there is no way it will be able to spend 20 per cent of its fee income on bursaries. "That is stupid," says Thorne. "We can't possibly afford that."

BURSARIES: WHO IS GIVING WHAT

Among the largest bursaries announced to date - £4,000 a year - are those being given by Imperial College London. The college is calling them "scholarships" because they are being awarded to students who fall into the most disadvantaged category (who qualify for the Government's maximum student assistance) and who get three As at A-level. It plans to devote a third of its top-up fee money to helping disadvantaged students.

Cambridge University has also said that it will give bursaries of up to £4,000 on a sliding scale, as has Exeter University. University College London, a direct competitor of Imperial, is drawing up plans to separate bursaries from scholarships, and is planning to spend more than Sir Martin Harris's 20 per cent on helping poorer students. And Bristol University is planning bursaries to the value of £1,000 a year, and estimates that it will be devoting more than 25 per cent of top-up fee money to this area.

York University has a three-tier system: the poorest students (with family incomes of £15,000 or less) will get £2,000 a year; those with £21,000 or less will get £1,000; and those with £31,000 or less, £600. It estimates that it will spend about 23 per cent of its additional income on these students.

There is no question that poorer students will be better off under these new arrangements than they are now. And universities agree that they will be engaging in bidding wars for the brightest poor students. "You have to compete for the best," says a spokesman for Imperial.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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