Student finance: Crunch the numbers cleverly

A good head for figures is vital throughout your undergraduate years. Stephen Hoare is your guide to loans, grants, fees and Clearing

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The Independent Online

With the current standard tuition fee for an undergraduate degree priced at up to £9,000, the Government and universities offer students financial support to help offset the cost.

The good news is that most students will not have to pay tuition fees up front. The cost is covered by tuition fee loans, which do not have to be repaid until students graduate and are earning more than £21,000 per year.

Individuals can apply for a student loan from Student Finance England or its Welsh equivalent Student Finance Wales. SFE and SFW replaced the old Student Loans Company in 2012.

In Scotland, fees are met by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS).

Britain's growing number of private universities are in a less privileged position. At the University of Buckingham, a private not-for-profit university, only half of the £12,000 annual tuition fee is eligible for a student loan, for example. However, since the university offers two-year undergraduate degrees, the overall cost is less than at most conventional universities and graduates can begin employment and start earning a year sooner.

Some private colleges offering degrees are not recognised by Student Finance England for the purposes of tuition fee loans. You will need to check with the college or university whether this is the case.

Maintenance loans and grants

On top of this, students can also apply for financial support in the form of a loan or a grant to help with living costs. Maintenance loans are available through Student Finance England and Student Finance Wales – see the websites for details.

Where a household income is less than £42,000, grants are given on a sliding scale, with students from lower income families receiving proportionately more. A grant is non-repayable.

Living costs include all of the expenditure associated with studying away from home, such as accommodation, food and drink, travel, textbooks and entertainment. The maintenance loan or grant is higher for universities in London than anywhere else in Britain to take into account the higher costs of travel and accommodation.

Students with disabilities, including dyslexia and dyspraxia, can qualify for university administered funds that will enable them to buy specially modified IT equipment or, in some cases, hire a learning support assistant.

Lower income households

Since universities are permitted to charge up to a maximum of £9,000, they are also obliged to redistribute a proportion of their tuition fees income to help support students from lower income households. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA), a government body, has set up access agreements for each university under which funding is channelled into student bursaries. Details and individual amounts are left to universities themselves to administer.

Universities also take part in another government initiative, the National Scholarships Programme. Aimed at low income students, the NSP is funded by the Government and universities to make one-year-only awards of up to £3,000.

Universities may choose to distribute the money in different ways. Plymouth University has enhanced the government contribution to the NSP scheme in order to enable more students to benefit. Eligible students receive £1,000 in cash in their first year and a £2,000 credit on their cashless 'campus card', which they can use to pay for accommodation, catering and even childcare.

Many universities target bursaries at students from lower income households who are also eligible for maintenance grants. The University of Nottingham offers a core bursary of up to £3,000.

"If a student's household income is less than £42,000, they will receive a bursary on a sliding scale, ranging from £3,000 if the income is less than £15,000 up to £750 at the top end," says Alison Barnard, Nottingham University financial support supervisor.

Going through Clearing

There is a lot to think about in a short space of time at Clearing. Once a student goes into Clearing, having failed to achieve the grades needed to take up a conditional offer by their first and insurance choice university, it is vital for them to check that their student loan application and their maintenance payments can be transferred to a new institution and that Student Finance England or Student Finance Wales are kept informed of changes in circumstance.

Finance is always a key part of the decision-making at Clearing because students need to ensure that their revised choice of a degree and institution does not leave them financially worse off. The statutory funding a student is entitled to doesn't change, unless they're looking to switch from a university in London where maintenance loans are set higher.

"If you knew you were going to get a bursary or a scholarship from your first choice of university then that doesn't move with you," says Barnard.. "Students need to do a bit of research into what funding – if any – is available when they are offered a place at Clearing."

Clearing helplines will refer students to information about finance on their website or by putting them through to student services. Thanks to the Ucas tracking system, a student's basic entitlement is calculated automatically. "Once the offer has been made and accepted, Ucas puts our details on to their system," says Bev Woodhams, head of central recruitment at the University of Greenwich. "The system flags up different student backgrounds and demographics so that we can tell if a student is eligible for the National Scholarship Programme."

Where to find advice

University websites contain a lot of information on student finance, but it is always advisable to get the up-to-date picture on available bursaries from the student services department, which will staff phone lines during the Clearing period.

University Clearing helplines will refer students once they've discussed courses available, and before they have confirmed their offer or made a provisional offer will refer them on to student services, usually by transferring the call. In this way, the student is armed with as much information as possible to make an informed decision.

Parents are an important factor in the conversations and some universities have set up dedicated parents' helplines. "Every student tends to be in a different situation," says Kathryn Rees, operations manager for the University of South Wales. "This is why we advise students and their families to come and see us on campus before they make their final decision. We also have a parents' helpline as it helps to talk to them direct."

The campus branch of the National Union of Students can also help with information about student employment opportunities, as many students now rely on part-time employment to help pay their way through university.