Alison Goddard navigates the baffling assortment of incentives on offer to entice students
The most comprehensive picture yet of the financial support available to students when top-up fees are introduced in 2006 is provided by The Times Higher' s breakdown of what individual institutions plan to offer in terms of bursaries, savings and other incentives.
These have been collated from 111 access agreements officially endorsed this week by the Office for Fair Access, the government body ensuring that academic institutions continue their efforts to recruit working-class students.
We focus on bursaries on offer - in the table - as the vast majority of institutions and colleges will charge the full £3,000 a year top-up fees from the 2006-07 academic year.
What emerges from this first tranche of agreements is a complex market of student support worth some £100 million a year. A further seven higher education institutions - mainly colleges - are in the process of submitting their proposals to Offa.
Universities hope to attract an estimated 130,000 students with a baffling range of enticements, including free laptops, subsidised accommodation, vouchers for bicycles, fee waivers and cash incentives.
Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa, said: "This is the first time the sector has seen such investment in bursary provision across the board on anything approaching this scale.
"The autonomy of universities and colleges has resulted in a strong variety of bursary packages tailored to the circumstances of students and of institutions. They have been both creative and generous in what they plan to offer students who are less well off."
The table shows the minimum level of support students can expect in their first year at each institution if they qualify for a full maintenance grant from the Government (also reintroduced from 2006-07).
It also shows the maximum amount they could get for the year should they fulfil other criteria - such as coming from a local school or having outstanding A-level results.
Finally, it shows the maximum level of support a similar candidate from a better-off family could qualify for.
Three with variable fees
In stark contrast to this complex listing of bursary support, just three universities so far have unveiled plans to charge less than the maximum Pounds 3000 a year.
This comes despite the fierce parliamentary debates that threatened to derail the passage of the Higher Education Bill after concerns that variability of fees would create a divisive market in higher education.
Thames Valley, Greenwich and Leeds Metropolitan universities will charge fees of £2,700, £2,500 and £2,000 a year respectively. A further five higher education colleges will also charge less than £3,000, with amounts ranging from £2,200 to £2,700.
There has been little market research informing many of the packages on offer, but institutions have drawn on student feedback to distinguish themselves in the market.
Baroness Blackstone, vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, said:
"Greenwich will offer high-quality education at an affordable price and every student will benefit from paying a fee below the maximum.
"Our aim is to attract students from a wide range of backgrounds, invest in their education, improve their chances of success and help them into good jobs after graduation.
She added: "The university is confident that this package of a lower fee combined with bursaries and scholarships will appeal to potential applicants. Our current students have told us that it will."
Support for poor students
Most institutions will channel a significant proportion of the income generated from top-ups into extra grants for students from low-income backgrounds. As expected, the most generous offers come from the current academic elite that have the fewest students from low-income families.
All students on full maintenance grants at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities will be guaranteed a £3,000 bursary. (Oxford will also offer an extra £1,000 for the first year only to these students.) Even more cash, however, will be available to certain groups of students at other universities and colleges. Some institutions are offering performance-related scholarships, some of which are available only to students from low-income families. A further 11 are offering subject-specific bursaries.
Students with residual family incomes of less than £15,200 who gain three top grades at A level will receive £5,000 a year to study at Manchester University.
Mature students living in Cambridge in receipt of a full grant will get bursaries of £5,000 from the university. The same sum is available to final-year students with residual family incomes of less than £10,999 who are pursuing a four-year degree programme at University College London.
In terms of overall generosity, Edge Hill College tops the table.
Its access agreement states that it will spend half of its new income on bursaries - including a fee-waiver scheme for siblings - and outreach activities.
Those institutions, predominantly new universities, with the most students from poor backgrounds could well prosper in the emerging market as they are offering the most simple bursary schemes in the sector.
They can offer the same package across the board because only a small number of those from rich backgrounds will benefit from the financial support on offer. Bolton, Thames Valley and Central Lancashire universities, for example, will all offer £1,000 across the board.
The prize for the most complex offering, on the other hand, goes to the Arts Institute, Bournemouth. It will offer students on full grants a bursary of £300 a year, with a £200 bonus for progression between course levels and a £400 bonus for completing the course.
Up to 30 students from target groups whose home address is 25 miles away or more, meanwhile, will receive a 25 per cent discount in their accommodation fees for the first year only. And students from local schools who live at home will receive £300 vouchers towards local bus company travelcards.
Finally, the Arts Institute will offer those with a maintenance grant of Pounds 1,000 or more £150 in vouchers to be spent on bicycles, with £50 a year in vouchers for maintenance thereafter.
A handful of universities have not yet had their access agreements approved. They include Liverpool John Moores, London South Bank and Hull.
Hannah Essex , vice-president for education of the National Union of Students
"Only 20 per cent of the money from students is going into supporting students who need it.
"The disparity in financial support between those who are bright enough and are in the right circumstances to go to Oxbridge and those who have to stay local and go to an institution that has a better access record and has to spread the money more thinly is grossly unfair."
Michael Driscoll , chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University
"Full-time undergraduate students with the same family income will get different benefits and bursaries - not according to their ability to study, but according to which course they want to study, which university they attend and what that university can afford. It is difficult to understand why any government should back a scheme that promotes such glaring inequalities."
Paul Mackney , general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe
"The Government should have introduced a national bursary 'pot' from which entitled students could receive the same support regardless of which institution they attend."
Sir Martin Harris , director of the Office for Fair Access
"The amount that has been set aside for bursaries is significantly more than my original expectation of £200 million - a great tribute to the work that has been put in by institutions to ensure that no applicant to higher education from an underrepresented group is deterred on financial grounds."
Ivor Crewe , president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Essex University
"With packages such as this, no student with the right qualifications will be denied the chance to get a degree."
Dianne Willcocks , chair of the Standing Conference of Principals and principal of York St John College "Scop members are proud to offer these new and exciting opportunities for the students of 2006 and beyond."
Link to the Statistics section: Bursary Offers table