Leader: Poor show on finance assistance

Bursaries should remove barriers to participation, but instead they confuse and perhaps even deter those they were intended to help

November 20, 2008

We are a proud people and nobody wants to put their hand up and say, 'I'm particularly poor.'" These words of Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of Million+, go to the heart of the debate about how less affluent students can be helped to access higher education.

Bursaries were introduced to help widen participation by ensuring that potential students from poor backgrounds who might be deterred by top-up fees faced no "additional financial barriers" to higher education. Indeed, it was the promise of bursaries that helped stave off a backbench revolt and allowed Labour MPs to vote for top-up fees.

Now, however, the most comprehensive study into the distribution of bursaries has revealed that a significant minority (40 per cent) are not means-tested and take no account of a student's financial background.

The research, by Claire Callender at Birkbeck, University of London, reveals wide variations in bursary values and qualification criteria, with some offered for exceeding entry-grade requirements, living locally or excelling at sport.

The situation at Russell Group universities is even more incongruous. As these institutions attract fewer working-class students, they have more funds available for bigger and juicier bursaries to lure the brightest and the best.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has made a strong case for a national bursary scheme in which a proportion of universities' additional fee income would be pooled. Such a prospect fills both the Russell Group and the 1994 Group with dismay. They say flexibility is vital to tackle specific access problems.

Providing fair access is a difficult issue, and the obstacles confronting many underprivileged students are often misunderstood. At first glance, it seems simple: offer suitably qualified candidates sufficient financial aid and, hey presto, off they go to university.

But it's not as easy as that. The system is so complex, with 303 different schemes in operation, that even if "non-traditional" students wanted to call for help, few would know what to ask for or where or how to get it.

It's a problem on the other side of the Atlantic, too. "Promise Lost: College-Qualified Students Who Don't Enroll in College", a recent survey by America's Institute for Higher Education Policy, revealed that a lack of clarity about financial aid available kept many students who met the entry requirements from applying for university, and that these were disproportionately members of ethnic minority groups and low-income families.

Perhaps there is a lesson for the UK in the report's recommendations. It says high schools should set "clear expectations about academic requirements at an early stage" by making university preparation part of the curriculum for all students, whether they intend to go or not. It also recommends that schools establish a course on "college planning" as early as the seventh grade (Year 8).

The Government hoped to widen access by creating a market in top-up fees. In this it failed, but it seems to have succeeded with bursaries. Hepi warns that this could result in an "arms race" for high-achieving poor students. Here there is another, less welcome, lesson from the US, where competition in bursaries between wealthy universities perpetuates the inequality it seeks to overcome.

If the sector is serious about fair access and widening participation, perhaps it should hold up its hands and confess that it may be failing many of the very students it set out to help.

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