Credit: Elly Walton
Of all the incoherent policies unleashed on higher education since the advent of the coalition government, I reserve special condemnation for the National Scholarship Programme. It has led institutions to rush to offer fee waivers rather than put cash in students’ pockets, it will increase the postcode lottery in financial support, and it has added confusion to an already bewildering student support system. To put it bluntly, the programme is neither national, nor a scholarship, nor a coherent programme. In its current form, it will utterly fail to deliver Nick Clegg’s stated objective of throwing open the doors of universities to bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Under the NSP, students attending different universities will be offered different packages, rather than support allocated fairly, based on need. Unfairly, those who study at universities recruiting only low numbers of NSP-eligible students are likely to receive more individual support through the NSP than students studying at institutions with more students from disadvantaged groups. And at the point of application, students now face a complex menu of institutional NSP benefits - and often there is no guarantee that an individual will end up with any of these benefits.
Moreover, describing these benefits as “scholarships” is highly misleading. Despite £150 million being given out by the NSP over the next three years, overall not a single penny extra will end up in students’ pockets. The cash will be swallowed up by fee waivers, designed to get the cost of borrowing down and to reduce the government’s embarrassment over the cost of its new higher education funding system. As analysis by the Office for Fair Access has shown, by 2015 universities will be spending £70 million less on bursaries and scholarships for students from low-income homes than they did in 2009-10, while fee waivers will make up more than £250 million of the total financial support given out to students from low-income households.
The National Union of Students is pushing for radical changes to student financial support to address what has become a creeping barrier to higher education access: the lack of cash support for students during their studies. We have launched a Student Finance Commission to provide the (currently lacking) comprehensive research on the money students have while they study. We have already had 23,000 responses, and the first sets of data, to be published soon, will paint a national picture. It’s likely to be an ugly one.
In recent years inflation has grown while maintenance has not, the cost of student accommodation has risen, and students continue to encounter hidden course costs. Combined with the shift towards offering fee waivers instead of bursaries, this could create a perfect storm. Financial support for individuals during their studies is crucial. The success or otherwise of the new student finance arrangements cannot be judged only by the simple measure of access or by the number of students from under-represented backgrounds who go on to higher education. What matters more is whether or not students are given the financial backing to help them stay the course of study and achieve their full potential.
Last week, students across the country took part in the NUS’ Come Clean week of action, calling on MPs and vice-chancellors to be clear about the consequences of the decisions they have taken on tuition fees and student support. Some institutions, including the universities of Sheffield and Bristol, have responded positively by committing to ending hidden course costs and by offering students the option of upfront financial support in the form of bursaries, rather than fee waivers. We are also calling for students’ unions to have oversight of institutional access agreements - including the opportunity to “sign off” on both the content and process of forming the agreements before consideration by Offa. Vice-chancellors have the power to put more money in students’ pockets by rejecting fee waivers, and they should act swiftly to do so.
But time is not on our side. The NSP starts in September, and the programme needs significant amendment if perverse and unacceptable consequences are to be avoided. The proposals offered by Simon Hughes in his capacity as the government’s access tsar are sensible, but there is little evidence that anything more than lip service has been paid to them. Yet it is only by addressing these urgent problems that the laudable aim of creating a coherent financial support package for all students can be achieved. Otherwise, students will rightly see the NSP as little more than fraudulent window dressing.