For poorer students hoping to go to university, as well being entitled to government grants they can usually take advantage of bursaries. These grants, awarded by individual universities to those whose household income is limited, can help ease the costs and debts of student life. There are currently 303 separate bursary and scholarship schemes in some 117 higher education institutions.

Concerns have arisen though that universities are instead using bursaries to help recruit students instead of helping those from poorer backgrounds through their degrees. Two students who go to different universities but have the same household income and are both entitled to the same level of government grants and loans may receive drastically different bursaries at their respective universities.

In a more naked attempt at student recruitment, some universities offer scholarships to students who exceed the grades required by the university upon entry, regardless of economic background.

Research by Claire Callender, a professor of higher education at Birbeck, University of London has suggested that universities are utilising bursaries as a recruitment strategy, turning it into a competitive market as opposed to helping poorer students enter higher education. Her findings have revealed noticeable differences in the size of bursaries offered to students with low household incomes, with grants ranging from £300 to £3500. Universities who charge more than £2,835 are required to offer a minimum bursary of £310 for low-income students. Whilst 12% of universities offer students this amount, the other 88% also offer additional funds. Interestingly, whilst 60% of bursaries involve a form of means testing 40% do not consider students’ household income.

Concerns have arisen as to whether this approach of competitively offering bursaries as a means of attracting particular students is entirely fair. Bursary schemes, typically thought of as a way of offering higher education opportunities to poorer students instead represent universities acting in their own interests. One Sussex student who received a bursary from the University of Sussex last year wishes that they could standardize bursaries: “I find it unfair that bursaries are used to attract students when they should be used purely to help those who are unable to fund their own education.” At the University of Sussex, the bursary scheme for students in 2008 is means-tested; those with a family income of £25,000 or less will qualify for an extra £1000 per academic year. Roughly 450 to 500 bursaries are awarded each year by the university.

Callender’s findings include the discovery that the very top ranked universities in the league tables tended to offer the larger bursaries whereas the smaller grants were awarded by lower-ranked universities. The newer higher education institutions also offered considerably smaller bursaries. Financially disadvantaged students at universities more discerning in their selection process on average received almost three times the amount of aid than their contemporaries at other less selective institutions. Callender argues that these inequalities come about because selective universities have fewer low-income students, and so can afford to be more generous in the amount of financial aid they dole out. These institutions claim that larger bursaries are necessary to attract less affluent students if they are to break down stereotypes that certain ‘prestigious’ universities are only for a certain set of people.

Yet a report delivered by the Higher Education Policy Institute claims that this strategy of offering larger bursaries is not an effective method for helping more selective universities to widen their intake, with figures revealing that significantly lower proportions of undergraduates from poorer backgrounds enter the more selective universities. However, this may change as students become more conscious of the variations in bursaries offered.

It seems that the more selective institutions offer larger bursaries as means of attracting applicants from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. Callender points out that universities with higher numbers of low-income undergraduates recruit new students and market their institution via offering bursaries, such as awarding aid to all new entrants or to those who manage to complete their course.

The Higher Education Policy Institute claims that the only way to ensure that students with similar financial needs receive similar amounts of financial help is to establish a national bursary scheme which would offer a standardised level of aid to students on a means-tested basis. The scheme would be funded by a collective pool of income from universities. This proposal has been rejected by both the government and universities but applauded by the National Union of Students. NUS president Wes Streeting states that, “The current system is complex and confusing. We need a single national bursary scheme, so that financial support is based on what students need, not where they study.”

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