Just 16 per cent of funds from the government’s National Scholarship Programme will be awarded to students in the form of bursaries this year, with more than half going towards tuition fee waivers.
Only £20.7 million of the £130.5 million allocated to the student support scheme in 2012-13 will reach the pockets of students, according to a review of its first year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The NSP was announced shortly before the vote in December 2010 to treble tuition fees and was widely seen as a move to allay concerns that poor students would be deterred from studying at university.
Students from families earning less than £25,000 a year are eligible for financial support worth at least £3,000, which can take the form of bursaries, fee waivers, subsidised rent or help to cover the costs of other campus services.
However, Hefce’s review appears to confirm frequent criticisms that NSP funds are not helping students but are rather underwriting much-criticised fee waivers.
Liam Burns, the outgoing president of the National Union of Students, has described the waivers as an “elaborate con trick” because while they appear to reduce student debt, they do not cut graduates’ repayments as many will never pay off their loan arrears.
Alan Milburn, who advises the government on social mobility, has also dismissed fee waivers as “a waste of time”, saying that the money should go to student bursaries.
According to the findings, published on 6 June as part of a joint report by Hefce and the Office for Fair Access, £69.3 million of the NSP’s annual funds in 2012-13 were awarded as fee waivers or discounts.
About £ million was handed to students from the NSP in the form of subsidised accommodation or student services.
Almost 35,000 students benefited from the NSP in 2012-13, although many more received other types of university bursary. According to the joint report, 455,500 students from lower-income or disadvantaged groups received bursaries in 2011-12.
The report also notes how institutional spending from fee income on bursaries and school outreach rose from £424.2 million in 2010-11 to £444.1 million in 2011-12.
However, overall spending in these areas, including from money awarded by Hefce, fell from £645 million to £624 million. This is partly explained by a £17 million fall in outreach spending as the national Aimhigher programme was scrapped in 2011.
The report adds that university spending on outreach - £57.6 million in 2011-12 - is set to almost double to £110.7 million by 2016-17.
“We have asked for an even greater focus on outreach in the very latest access agreements to come before us for approval,” said Les Ebdon, director of fair access.
Institutions will be asked to adopt a more “strategic approach” to school outreach and “get smarter in their investment” to close “the unacceptably large gap in participation in higher education that remains between advantaged and disadvantaged people”, he added.