Bursary conditions

July 21, 2011

The Office for Fair Access' decisions on access agreements have thrown up some interesting differences in approach between "fee waivers" and "bursaries" ("Will Treasury coffers trump student pockets?", 14 July).

Bursaries are known to be highly valued by students, and universities provide them to try to ensure that undergraduates have money in their pockets and support while they are studying. This is a particular concern for universities that provide opportunities for students from lower-income backgrounds whose families are simply unable to provide additional financial support.

Universities are investing in bursaries precisely because they understand that this support is more crucial than fee waivers because graduates can pay back their fee loans over 30 years.

There is a further reason why universities have not offered significant numbers of fee waivers. European Union students studying at English universities are entitled to access fee loans on the same basis as their British peers. Maintenance loans and grants are different as they are considered to be "benefits" and are subject to the conditions laid down by the EU member state - in the UK's case, three years' residency.

EU students are likely to be entitled to fee waivers on the same means-tested basis as UK ones. The government's policy of promoting fee waivers, including the National Scholarship Programme, therefore creates an additional financial liability for EU students that universities would have to meet.

However, regardless of whether universities have opted for fee waivers, bursaries or both, the figures issued by Offa confirm that the overwhelming majority will be charging more than £7,500 a year from 2012-13. They will therefore be unable to bid for the 20,000 contestable places earmarked for those charging less than £7,500 announced in the White Paper.

Having failed to create a highly differentiated market in fees, ministers are now seeking to create a market in student numbers by imposing conditions retrospectively. As the White Paper makes plain, the primary object is to limit the government's financial exposure.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' own communications campaign, Make Your Future Happen, correctly points out that no matter what students borrow, as graduates they will pay off the same amount each month according to how much they earn above £21,000 a year. There is therefore no immediate financial advantage to students in studying at a provider that charges £6,000 vis-à-vis one that charges £9,000.

It seems that "putting students at the heart of the system" may not be all that it would first appear.

Pam Tatlow, Chief executive, Million+

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