Lump sum 'spells trouble'

April 7, 2006

Poor students may feel pressure to give bursaries and loans to their family. Claire Sanders reports

Students from poor families are in danger of using bursaries and loans to pay off family debts and help impoverished parents, according to research funded by the Higher Education Academy.

Early findings from a study of the impact of tuition fees on the student experience found widespread concern among heads of student services that giving students from poor families significant sums of money at the beginning of the academic year could be "asking for trouble".

David Roberts, managing partner in the Knowledge Partnership, a consultancy involved in the research, said: "Many heads felt it would be better to hand out money in instalments.

"Universities are already aware of cases where sons, for example, are helping their single-parent mothers to pay off debts or ethnic-minority students are using their loans to contribute to the family business," he said.

"The new bursaries and increased loans add up to significant cash sums and could exacerbate the pressure on these students to help their families."

Mr Roberts added: "Poor students may also feel pressured to buy their way into friendship groups. In such circumstances, it can be hard for students to manage their money - particularly lump sums."

The research, jointly undertaken with Southampton University, found that the cap imposed on top-up fees might have pushed up fees on some courses.

Mr Roberts said: "The cap set a going rate of £3,000, and universities feared that going below that implied poorer quality. If there had not been a cap, some universities said they would have set lower fees."

Despite the uniformity of the fees markets, the research found that a market still existed for higher education in terms of course quality, location, career prospects and reputation.

"The only new variable is the support packages - which most applicants found confusing and hard to compare across the sector," Mr Roberts said.

"We found that careers advisers - as well as students - had a shaky understanding of the system. The Government needs to spend more money on advice and training."

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, who attended the launch of the findings at Cambridge University this week, said the Government would continue its campaign to better explain the new student support regime.

The researchers gathered evidence from A-level students considering going to university this year in a number of schools and colleges in Yorkshire and the south of England.

They also held interviews with senior staff in four UK higher education institutions and analysed data from Australia and New Zealand.

Tuition Fee fallout

  • Undergraduates just above the threshold for financial support are likely to suffer from the impact of higher tuition fees. Universities predict that the heaviest burden will fall on middle-class students who will be exempt from grants and bursaries but will have to pay full fees
  • Student advisers and counsellors predict that there will be more complaints from UK students, who will regard themselves as customers with rights and will have high expectations
  • Based on Australian findings, fees are likely to turn students away from heavy partying and encourage them to take up part-time jobs
  • The experience of being a student is likely to be less campus-oriented and more drawn out, as students struggle to pay off their debts before they have even started a career
  • There is no evidence that introducing fees reduces participation in higher education.

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