Some £12m in bursaries that should have gone to students from disadvantaged backgrounds starting their degree courses last year was left unclaimed. The reason why such large sums went begging is something of a mystery.
The Office for Fair Access (Offa), the Government agency responsible for increasing opportunity for disadvantaged students, believes students were simply not aware of what was available. Critics say that the complexity of the schemes is the root cause, and blame universities for using the cash to attract the students they want rather than providing for financial hardship.
Funding up for grabs
Universities are offering generous funds for students. For the academic year 2008-9, university expenditure on financial support for students is expected to be around £300m – £100m up on last year. The wealthier universities –Oxford and Cambridge – top the table for generosity.
Students from families on low incomes are eligible for means-tested bursaries of £3,000 a year. (Oxford pays £4,000 in the first year.) Cambridge has no fixed limit on its funds and expects that this year up to a third of the new intake – 2,000 students – will get some bursary money, at a cost to the university of an estimated £2m.
A more typical bursary is £1,000 a year, though some of the newer universities are limited to the minimum £300 a year for students from low income families. There are exceptions. The University of the West of England supports around half its students with bursaries worth up to £1,250 a year. Universities are also giving generous scholarships.
They are not means-tested and universities apply a wide range of criteria to their award. Research commissioned by the Sutton Trust suggests university applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to know about bursaries and scholarships – the exception being students with high GCSE results, who do tend to be aware of the schemes.
Ministers are hoping the changes being put in place for this year’s applicants will improve the take-up. The forms that students are required to fill out have been changed. Applicants will have to opt out of giving their financial information to universities rather than, as previously, consenting to give the information.
More students will become eligible for bursaries because the Government has moved the threshold – it will now be possible for students from families whose income is £25,000 or less to get a full bursary. (The threshold was previously £18,000). In addition, more universities are using the Higher Education Bursary and Scholarship Scheme (HEBBS). It is run by the Student Loans Company (SLC), who allow funds to be channelled through them to students automatically, provided they have consented to give their financial information to the university.
“Institutions are keen to learn from experience,” says Professor Rick Trainor, president of UniversitiesUK. ”Those universities that spent less than they estimated have reviewed their access agreements and expect there to be greater take-up in future years.”
Problems with the current system
But the problem remains that schemes are complicated and vary from university to university. The National Union of Students wants the Government to impose a national bursary scheme. Next year’s Government review of university top-up fees will also examine the operation of bursary and scholarship schemes. Within Offa, there is opposition to a national bursary scheme because officials fear it would lead to a levelling down of what is available.
“We think take-up is an awareness problem, and we are still in the early stages of a new system. A national system would have few benefits,” says David Barrett, Offa’s assistant director.
The take-up varies between universities. At Gloucester, students claimed £835,000 of the £1.2m that had been allocated. At City University in London, all of the allocated £900,000 was taken up. Most of the funds paid out by universities goes on means tested bursaries, but large sums are being given by some universities to attract students to courses that are hard to fill or to attract better qualified students than would normally apply to them.
Manchester University will cover the course tuition fees for any chemistry student, regardless of income, who has achieved three As at A-level. Scholarships worth £1,000 a year are given to the most “promising” students that apply for the earth, atmospheric and environmental science courses.
Sheffield University has a list of priority subjects – mainly science and engineering – where it pays bursaries of £260 for each A grade at A-level achieved by applicants.
Hull will pay £1,500 to engineering and technology students who get three Bs or better. Middlesex University has a chancellor’s scholarship that pays £2,000 a year to the student who is considered to have made a significant achievement in sport, community involvement or exam success.
Leeds University offers an organ scholarship worth £450 plus a bursary towards the cost of organ lessons. If a student gains three As at A-level the university gives £500in the first year of entry. It has an enterprise scholarship that offers a one-off payment of up to £4,000. This year it will award 10 enterprise scholarships.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute, accuses universities of using their funds to meet their strategic goals rather than the financial needs of students. “I think the system is fairly defective at the moment,” he says. “The fact that millions are left unclaimed suggests the schemes are too complex and students find it difficult to find out what is available.
“Some universities have completely lost sight of the fact that schemes should be about financing the poorest students. They are offering scholarships to attract applicants to particular courses or they are attempting to boost their student entry qualification profile.”
Is a national scheme the future?
The HEPI has begun an analysis of whether there is a case for a national bursary scheme. The report will examine how each university’s contribution to a national fund could be calculated. The results will be published later this year.
When the bursary scheme was first mooted, the newer universities had wanted a national scheme on the grounds that they would easily be outbid for students by the richer institutions, but they were out-voted. The system as it currently operates is unfair in that two applicants with roughly the same qualifications applying to similar universities can be offered widely different finance packages.
The research shows that the least well-informed applicants are from low income homes with parents who did not go to university – and they are the ones that most need the money.
It is difficult to navigate the system, but the Government has designed a bursary map ( www.direct.gov.uk/bursarymap) which brings together links to the 219 universities and colleges in England so that applicants can find bursary information for all institutions.
To apply for a bursary, students have to approach the university they are interested in to find out what is on offer and how to apply. For some, bursaries are essential. According to a report from Natwest, last year’s entrants can expect to spend £33,500 during a three-year degree and leave with debts of £14,779.
My story: how I got my hands on a bursary
‘I don’t rely on a job to keep going’
Andy McGowan, 20, who has just finished the first year of his law degree at Cambridge University, finds he does not have to worry too much about money, and can have the odd meal out because he gets a bursary of £3,250 a year. “Textbooks for my course are very expensive, so the bursary has really been very helpful,” he says. “I have a part-time job in the holidays, but I don’t have to rely on a job to keep me going.”
The family income is low because McGowan’s father, 56, has a heart condition and has had to retire. His mother has also retired. McGowan got his place through Cambridge’s special access scheme because the amount of time he had to take off school to help his parents had an impact on his GCSE grades. “I find I am relatively well-off, but there are a lot of very well-off students here.
Some have parents who pay their tuition fees; accommodation costs and all their other expenses,” he says. McGowan is the first in his family to go to university. “I am not from your typical Cambridge background and it is a challenge in terms of work, but I have made loads of friends,” he says.
‘The money helped with my rent’
Charlotte Ferguson, 20, has a music scholarship from the University of Gloucestershire where she is studying psychology.The scholarship is worth £300 a year and to win it she had to complete an exam paper and play the flute for the university’s musical director.
It was one of only two instrumental scholarships. The university also awards three choral scholarships. Ferguson has played the flute from the age 12 and was taught at her independent school, Trent College in Nottingham. She left school with a B grade in business studies; D in music and E in chemistry.
She hopes to pursue a career in music therapy with disabled children. “Music helps such children to communicate. The bursary did make quite a lot of difference because I was living off campus in Cheltenham, which is expensive," she says.
The flat Ferguson shares costs her £75 a week. The university has much to offer students with musical talents. Ferguson sings in the university choir and the chamber choir run by the university’s musical director, Ian Higginson. She also had a part in the university’s version of The Boyfriend. “The campus where I am is quite small so you get to know everyone,” she says. Ferguson has to audition every year to retain her bursary.