Can't afford to continue your studies? Don't despair, there's funding for underprivileged students

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The Independent Online

When it comes to postgraduate study, there are more opportunities for gaining funding than you can shake a diploma at. Competition has historically been very fierce, with only the brightest sparks getting a look in, but this year several institutions have set aside money for underprivileged students in the hope of attracting more interest in their Masters programmes.

The University of Bradford, for instance, has introduced a means-tested bursary available only to postgraduates from lower-income households. Each student will receive £500 to go towards their course fees: it may not sound like much, but the scheme has already generated a huge amount of interest.

"We told students to start applying at the start of October, and within a few days we had more than 20 applications," says Sarah Verbickas, the university's fees and bursaries officer. "We had no idea how many would apply, but it seems that people are thinking they won't be able to get any other financial help, because there's no government support."

The University of East London is offering 10 £3,000 scholarships to young students who live locally. Both the amount of money and the entry criteria were set by Sir John Cass Foundation, an ancient charity dedicated to supporting the education of inner-London youths.

"The real issue these days is that students come out of their undergraduate degrees with a large amount of debt," says Martin Everett, the university's vice-chancellor. "Postgraduate study doesn't look as attractive as it used to. There's a large gap in government funding at the Masters level, so more university grants and scholarships are required."

If your chosen university doesn't offer a means-tested funding scheme, don't worry: you can still go down any one of three tried-and-tested routes. The first is to enlist the help of a public funding body. The UK has seven Government-funded agencies known as research councils, who support the national development of key academic disciplines: they range from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to the Medical Research Council (MRC). One of their many functions is to offer "studentships" to the country's brightest undergraduates, to encourage them to pursue their subjects to postgraduate level and beyond. These grants are often extremely generous, and best of all, you don't have to pay any of the money back.

Before you ask, yes, there is a catch. Because competition for research council funding is so intense, most of them have to disregard any applicants who have not proved they can do the business at undergraduate level: this means you'll need a first or a good 2:1 to even have your application considered. Most people have only a tiny chance of emerging with a grant at the end of the arduous selection process, and even students with firsts are frequently turned away.

"If you scraped through your undergraduate degree with a 2:2, the chances of funding are very slim," says careers consultant Irena Jennings of Graduate Prospects. "If you have a first, you're definitely seen as more likely to succeed and to be worth investing in. It's sad, but the general notion seems to be that if you gave everyone lots of money to keep studying, people would have no motivation to work hard."

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) offers funding for students taking environmental science courses. Each year, they plough almost £40m of their annual budget into the training of around 1,400 postgraduates. The majority of these are PhD students, but there are also 300 or so doing Masters courses.

Nick Midwinter is the leader of the NERC team responsible for handing out studentship funding. Although the money is given to the institution rather than to the students directly, his team set the criteria by which each application is judged: it is then up to the university to select the cream of the crop.

"We want to encourage talented individuals to apply for our awards, so they can continue to study and develop," says Midwinter. "The tough academic requirements are there for a reason – we want to attract the best scientists. We do look at each individual application on its own merits, but ultimately success in academia is the priority."

A typical PhD studentship award from the NERC would be in the region of £60,000. This sum covers all tuition fees, living expenses, fieldwork requirements, and even any expenses incurred attending conferences. Students on MSc courses are likely to receive somewhere between £15,000 and £20,000.

"It sounds like a lot of money, but we still get some complaints from award-holders moaning that the living allowance is not enough," Midwinter says.

Another way to get funding is through the institution itself. Details of these lucrative schemes will probably be posted on your course website, and they come in many shapes and sizes, from the straightforward to the downright bizarre. The history department at UCL, for example, is offering £2,000 to anyone brave enough to take on the mammoth task of researching the "history of modern warfare since 1870" as part of their PhD or MPhil. Almost every university will offer scholarships to students who are outstanding academically, and many have bursaries for those with serious financial worries.

If you've already embarked upon a career, try persuading your employer to pay your way through a part-time postgraduate course. It may sound silly, but Irena Jennings of Graduate Prospects has seen this partnership succeed many times.

"It's just a case of negotiation," she says. "Another qualification might make you more confident and well trained, which is better for you and better for your company. Even if you only get a few hundred pounds, that's no reason not to ask. In fact, I've come across a few companies that have paid all their employee's course fees."

Your last option is to apply for funding through a charity, foundation or trust. Check your university careers service or local library for a copy of the Grants Register, which is published annually and should have all the details you need. Most charities and trusts will only offer to pay part of your fees, but some of the well-established ones – such as the Wellcome Trust, the world's largest medical research charity – have vast sums of money at their disposal.

The main advantage of going down this route is that there are thousands of charities and trust funds to try, covering every subject area imaginable, and there's always a chance that your dazzling research proposal could persuade them to part with some cash. It's probably better to use charities as a last resort though, as many of them won't hand out any money until they're sure you've already tried going down the regular channels without success.

"It's always worth scouring the trust fund directories, and making that effort to write a nice letter asking for funding," says Jennings. "Explain why you want the money and how much you need: often some of these trust funds have bursaries set aside for students who fill very specific criteria. You shouldn't expect a lot, but every little helps."