Offa's strikes against bursaries not work of fair-access champion

Wes Streeting argues that a truly independent watchdog would back upfront cash for low-income students, not 'fee waivers' for the state

December 8, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

The government's "access watchdog" has reached new agreements with the 25 universities and colleges that have sought to reduce their average tuition fees in the scramble to gain student places.

Potential applicants will finally be able to make informed decisions armed with the knowledge of the level of tuition fees charged and the student-support package offered by every higher education institution.

But the end result of the process has been a dramatic cut - almost £14 million - in funding for bursaries for the poorest students to make way for an increase in "fee waivers".

The choice between offering students financial support through bursaries or a discount on their tuition fees through waivers should be a no-brainer. Applicants are told that higher education is affordable to anyone who wants to go, but the reality is that it is more affordable for some than others. Those from low-income families have more difficult decisions to make about what and where to study, sometimes finding themselves forced to do so locally or part-time because they can't make ends meet. Bursaries based on financial circumstances give students the support they need, up front and in their pockets.

By contrast, the only beneficiary of the fee waiver is the Treasury. From a consumer finance point of view, it makes no sense for a student to choose a fee waiver over a bursary. The income-contingent repayments for graduates earning more than £21,000 a year, combined with a debt write-off period after 30 years, means that many graduates will pay back nothing like the price tag on their courses.

I can understand why the Treasury might prefer to see more fee waivers than bursaries, but we should not imagine that this preference is based on what is best for students facing the greatest financial disadvantage.

Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, either doesn't understand how the new student finance system works or was being disingenuous when he said in an Offa press statement: "In short, money is not just being moved from one pot to another, there's also additional investment, particularly in fee waivers, so reducing the net costs for some students." But the monthly cost to graduates will be based on their earnings, not their fees.

It is time that we stopped pretending that Offa has been acting solely in the best interests of disadvantaged students in their negotiations with the sector. Harris' assertion within these pages that "Offa remains neutral on the exact shape that financial support takes" ("Wait and see about waivers", Letters, 24 November) stands in stark contrast to the discussions I've had with a number of institutions in recent months. They've informed me that Offa had directed them to decrease the amount of funding available for bursaries and to include more fee waivers - testimony borne out by the figures released last week. It is disgraceful that the academy has been discouraged from providing meaningful support to students through bursaries in favour of government gimmicks.

Offa undoubtedly finds itself under intense pressure from coalition ministers to help bring the sector's budget under control. But there needs to be some transparency in its decision-making. We must ask (as Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, did recently): whose interests do the regulators serve?

Offa is right to argue that there is little evidence to suggest that generous bursary schemes affect students' choices about where to study. For that reason, its requirement for institutions to invest in outreach programmes is as welcome as the sector's longstanding commitment to this type of activity.

But I worry about the growing complacency in some circles about student finance and the detachment of decision-makers from the harsh realities facing students. Many already struggle to meet basic maintenance costs. Most already take up part-time paid employment (and sometimes not so part-time) to support themselves during their studies. Soaring levels of unemployment mean that many of the jobs typically available to students are either occupied by graduates or no longer exist. At the Helena Kennedy Foundation, we are seeing record demand for our bursary support and unprecedented calls on our limited hardship fund.

Widening participation is not just about student recruitment: it is also about ensuring that people from all backgrounds are able to participate fully in the rich and rounded experience that higher education has to offer. For those who face the greatest disadvantages, upfront financial support is a lifeline and one that a truly independent fair-access champion would promote. I fear that the sector is cutting back on financial support for students just when it is needed most.

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