Ministers have been accused of short-changing the poorest students by instituting new rules on university bursaries.
Until now, the poorest students have had the costs of their £3,225-a-year tuition fees covered by a full maintenance grant – currently worth £2,906 a year – and a university bursary of at least £319.
But earlier this month, the Government announced that it would raise fees by 2.04 per cent to £3,290 next year while freezing maintenance support at this year’s levels.
This could have forced some universities to increase their bursaries expenditure by 20 per cent because, under the old rules, they were expected to make up the difference between fees and the state maintenance grant for the poorest students.
However, on 23 July the Office for Fair Access (Offa) announced new requirements.
From now on, the minimum bursary will be set at 10 per cent of the tuition-fee ceiling, which equals £329 in 2010-11.
Under the previous guidance, the minimum bursary would have been £384 – so the poorest students will have £55 less.
Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa, said that the 10 per cent figure “will ensure that the value of the bursary is not eroded over time in comparison with the fee. This will give assurance to students and institutions alike.”
The decision prompted renewed criticism of the Government’s decision to freeze maintenance support.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “I cannot understand why a Government that is looking so hard at social mobility has taken the decision to charge the poorest students more money to attend university.
“The simple fact is that in 2006 a government grant and a bursary from a university covered the full tuition fee for the poorest students. The new arrangements mean this is no longer the case and the very students that need the most help will find themselves out of pocket.”
She added: “This may not seem like much money to some people, but if the Government is prepared to abandon safeguards to help the poorest students, it sets an incredibly worrying precedent.”
The Million+ group of new universities said it was right that universities should not have to make up the difference, claiming this would have placed a greater burden on the most socially diverse institutions.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said: “The real problem is that the maintenance grant has been frozen by the Government, and the important principle set out by Charles Clarke, the then Secretary of State for Education in 2004, that the maximum maintenance grant and the minimum bursary payment should add up to the fee charged has been broken.”
Aaron Porter, the National Union of Students’ vice-president for higher education, said: “Today’s announcement is nothing short of shameful… the Government has now gone back on its word.”
Offa said it expected universities to “seriously consider” offering a bursary of at least £384, but recognised that some might decide the money would be better spent on other widening-participation activities or measures to improve the student experience.
It pointed out that most universities already offer students a bursary far bigger than the minimum amount.
The average bursary for students who receive the full maintenance grant is £900.