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Bursaries: what you're entitled to at university

Follow our guide to what you’re entitled to at university and you’ll be quids in

Bursaries to help students to fund their way through university have grown in size and number over the past four years as fees have risen. Sadly, the way the money is awarded has remained complicated.

Finding the support available is time-consuming, just when applicants are knee-deep in A-levels, university open days and personal statements. So it's tempting to leave things in the lap of the gods and trust the Student Loans Company to supply the figures. But by then, the choice of course and university has been made. A little work beforehand will reveal very large differences in the amount of money each university awards to their students in non-repayable bursaries and scholarships.

One thing is certain: students are almost certain to spend more on living costs than they are allowed to borrow, so any extra source of funds beyond the banks and parents will be important.

Keeping the government-funded loans to a minimum is also advisable because "interest-free" does not mean cost-free. The sums borrowed under the student loans scheme are increased after graduation each year by the amount of inflation. The fall in bank rate has resulted in a zero up-rate over the past year but for some students – those who took out loans before 1998 – the rate will rise to 4.4 per cent from 1 September.

For 2011/12 applicants there is a snag, however. The Government has delayed telling the universities how much they can charge, which means they have yet to set a fee and bursary rate. A review of student funding by Lord Browne, the former BP boss, is due to report this autumn, and there could just be time for the Government to rush through a hike in the present £3,290 annual fee. Many universities want to be able to set charges of £5,000 or more.

Observers say it is highly unlikely that the Government could respond to the report, consult and make the legal changes to the fee regime in time for the 2011/12 entry, but it would be possible, just. The most likely scenario for 2011 entry is for fees to stay broadly the same, slightly uplifted for inflation, until 2012/13, which explains why admissions tutors are becoming less keen on deferred-entry places and gap years. In the last round of changes, the old fee rules applied to those awarded confirmed deferred places, but it was a last-minute concession that might not apply again.

You will be glad to know that the rules have not changed for the hundreds of charities, grant-making trusts, organisations , companies and industry bodies that award bursaries above and beyond the state support. Some are based on family income, some are linked to subjects and courses and others depend on where you live or even the occupation of your parents or grandparents. But more of this later.

The starting point for most university applicants is the Student Loans Company, which administers the publicly funded grants and loans. Then it gets more complicated – each university is expected to spend part of the money it receives in tuition fees to offset the cost for lower-income students. The minimum they must award to anyone on a full government grant is £329, bringing the total non-repayable grant to the same as the fees charged. But the sums they give out vary widely.

A report this month from the Office for Fair Access showed that universities spent £304m, more than one-quarter of their fee income, on bursaries to offset the costs for lower-income students.

Some of the largest amounts spent on bursaries were in the new universities, such as Thames Valley, which ploughs 45 per cent of fee income back in bursaries, and Sunderland, which puts back 44 per cent. Because they attract more students from lower-income families, however, the money is spread more widely – the more high-income students a university attracts, the larger the bursaries it can afford to make to its lower-income students.

Less well-off students do better at the richer institutions. Poorer undergraduates at Cambridge can expect up to £3,400 a year on top of the government grant and at Oxford up to £3,225. Birmingham gives its less well-off students up to £1,316, Manchester Met up to £1,025 and Kingston up to £1,000.

All is not lost, however, for those from middle- to high-income families because universities have been unwilling to abandon their income-blind scholarships to attract the best-qualified applicants. Teesside, for example, provides 40 scholarships of £4,000 a year for the duration of the course to students with 400 UCAS points from three A-levels – equivalent to A*A*A.

Universities also offer incentives to study certain subjects, mainly science and engineering but there are grants for arts subjects as well. The University of Leicester awards entrance scholarships worth £1,000 in a wide range of disciplines, including American studies, geography, history of art, modern languages and sociology. The awards are based on the student's A-level results.

The extra windfall is a lifeline for students. Harry Scott, for example, who did not qualify for Leicester's means-tested bursary of up to £1,384, says the £1,000 history scholarship has given him financial security in his first year. "I heard about the scholarships at the open day but then forgot about them until I received a letter saying I had been chosen on the basis of my grades of one A and two Bs," he says.

"It's been a fall-back for me. I have tried to live within my means but every so often I dip into the money a little bit. I only get the basic loan because my parents are just over the threshold and expected to make it up. It's not as if they earn a massive amount but they pay my rent. If they didn't, I would be left with £100 a term after the rent," he says.

Hundreds of students every year benefit from grants made by a wide range of charitable trusts, organisations and university alumni. Some are small funds, such as the Stokenchurch Education Charity, which uses money from the sale of a Victorian church school to fund small, one-off academic grants of up to £500 for people under 25 who live in the parish.

Students living in the Bath and Somerset area can apply for R W Barnes bursary awards of up to £2,000 if they plan to study engineering, maths and physics at Bath or one of 19 other universities. The fund is administered by the Quartet Community Foundation on behalf of Ron Barnes, the retired founder of an engineering company who lives in the area. He remembers the help he received from a local charity in his youth which allowed him to study maths at Imperial College London.

Some bursaries are linked to schools, such as the Browne Jacobson Scholarships, which help students educated at two schools in Nottingham.

Others target certain professions and industries, such as the Leverhulme Trade Charities Trust, which provides bursaries to relatives of commercial travellers, chemists or grocers, and the James Dyson Foundation, which supports engineering.

Tracking down the myriad of different awards has been made easier by a new website –unigrants.co.uk – which has collated information on some of them, searchable by location or course and subject. A search by subject shows drama students can apply for one-off grants of £1,000-£3,000 from the Lionel Bart Foundation, and archaeology students for up to £2,000 from the Society of Antiquaries of London.

But the most comprehensive guide to the charitable funding available remains the Educational Grants Directory produced by the Directory of Social Change, which costs £50 but is widely available in libraries and in some schools and colleges. It can also be viewed during office hours at the Directory's offices in London and Liverpool.

The system is complicated and stressful for applicants, says Julie Boggon, Leicester's senior welfare officer, but most universities employ staff to assist them. "Our job is to help students find a way through the system and maximise their income so their first experience of university is a good one."