Funding aids provide fairness and diversity 1

November 27, 2008

I want to make it absolutely clear that all universities and colleges that charge full fees provide bursary support for students from lower-income backgrounds ("No awards for equity", 20 November).

Any non-means-tested scholarships that universities and colleges choose to offer are either in addition to their core bursary scheme or are, in a few cases, universal bursaries that benefit all students, including those from lower-income backgrounds.

When people call for a national bursary scheme, they seem to forget that national support for less well-off students already exists in the form of an England-wide scheme of grants and loans currently more generous to students from the poorest families than any other scheme for many years.

Bursaries are quite distinct. When universities and colleges were allowed to charge variable fees, the intention was that institutions should use the income they received primarily to help provide for capital investment and staff salaries.

However, Parliament rightly determined that variable fees should not lead to students being deterred from higher education on financial grounds, and bursaries play an important role in ensuring this does not happen.

However, when the Office for Fair Access was set up, Parliament made it clear that it was for universities themselves to judge how best to use a proportion of their new fee income to assist students beyond the level it judged to be an acceptable minimum.

So it is no surprise that some institutions, in addition to their core bursary provision for less well-off and other disadvantaged students, are using bursaries to increase their appeal to students.

Nor is it any surprise that the Russell Group has chosen to offer larger bursaries to less well-off students, precisely in line with declared public policy to widen access to these universities. What is happening is that autonomous universities are using a proportion of their additional fee income to support students in a whole variety of ways over and above the minimum prescribed level. This is exactly what the legislation intended.

Sir Martin Harris, Director, Office for Fair Access.

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