It was the habit of education ministers before the last election to stress their contribution to the support of poorer students by reference to opportunity bursaries, as if these were a generous improvement on previous arrangements. They are not. The bursaries are mean in amount and number and their allocation is arbitrary and unfair.
Only £6.4 million is available in the first year to fund 6,370 bursaries for an intake of more than half a million students, half of whom are expected to be from families too poor to be liable for tuition fees. At £2,000 spread over three years, bursaries are worth much less than half the full grant in 1997. The government has made enormous savings on student support.
We now have growing evidence that need far outstrips support. This means universities and colleges will have to make arbitrary decisions as to which of the deserving poor are to get help. To make matters worse, in order to make these invidious decisions, institutions will have to go through tortuous and expensive assessment processes that duplicate the means testing already carried out by local authorities to see if students qualify for fee exemption or higher rates of loan.
Student financial arrangements were the only higher education issue to register during the recent election campaign. There are now signs that Downing Street has become concerned at the threat posed to policies for wider participation. The THES has repeatedly pointed out that the tangle of small schemes launched since 1997 to mitigate the effects of wrong decisions is so impenetrable that even experts find it hard to understand who is eligible for what. Review of these arrangements, promised by the previous administration, is long overdue. It will no longer do to turn a Nelsonian eye to growing anecdotal evidence that the prospect of debt and the lack of help is putting off exactly those students the government most wants to attract. Oversubscription of the opportunity bursaries is an indication that poorer students are applying: lack of help must load the dice against them lasting the course.
The new education secretary has shown herself willing to review some of her predecessor's policies. She and her higher education minister should move fast to sort out the indefensible mess that is the student support system.