When fees get a grip, bursaries of up to £10,000 and carrots such as subsidised rent will be used to woo students, but Paul Hill finds elaborate strings attached
Students will need a keen eye for small print in 2006 when they will be faced with a bewildering array of bursaries, scholarships and benefits in kind offered by universities and colleges.
A KPMG- Times Higher survey has found that 41 per cent of institutions have carried out no market research on fees and bursaries - but this has not stopped vice-chancellors dreaming up a wide variety of support schemes to try to attract students.
According to the survey, bursaries will range from the minimum £300 required by law to £5,000. But students may well find that the higher the bursary, the more strings will be attached.
Equally, where only small sums are on offer, universities may be planning to make funds available for applicants who do not qualify for state support.
Deals from one in four institutions will offer students the chance to "top up" bursaries with scholarships linked to A-level grades or Universities and Colleges Admissions Service scores.
About 30 per cent of institutions will take account of applicants' postcodes to target financial aid at those from the poorest neighbourhoods.
Not surprisingly, 70 per cent of institutions said they planned to charge £3,000 for all courses.
The exceptions will be lower charges for foundation degrees or higher national diplomas and university colleges looking to follow the example of Leeds Metropolitan University, which plans to offer discounts on undergraduate courses.
Russell Group universities will offer the largest bursaries. One in three will offer between £1,001 and £2,000, with the remaining two thirds planning to offer more than £3,000.
A clear majority of other old universities - 60 per cent - plan to offer between £2,001 and £3,000. Generous bursaries will also be on offer from some new universities - 5 per cent plan to offer more than Pounds 3,000.
But it is not all about cash.
Luton University will give students the chance to mix and match cash support and benefits in kind, such as discounted rent or help towards the cost of computer equipment.
But the small print suggests that not all the cash bursaries will be as generous as they seem.
Take Manchester University, which grabbed headlines last week with its announcement of bursaries of up to £10,000.
In fact, students eligible for full state support will receive a £1,000 bursary from Manchester, unless they happen to have three A-grade A levels to their name, which will qualify them for a scholarship of £5,000. To secure a £10,000 "president's award" the applicant would need to be among the "ten most outstanding students from the UK".
The survey - which records the views of 72 vice-chancellors and principals - has also identified various approaches that characterise different types of institutions and, in some instances, different regions.
The majority of university colleges (60 per cent) and Russell Group institutions (75 per cent) carried out market research as part of their planning for fees and bursaries - while two out of three other old universities did not.
In the South West, East of England and East Midlands, two thirds of institutions are offering help towards the cost of accommodation, a trend that is not repeated in the North East, West Midlands or Yorkshire and the Humber.
While Russell Group universities are unlikely to include help towards computer costs in student support schemes, 22 per cent of new institutions plan to do so.
Intriguingly, 40 per cent of university colleges plan to reward students' academic performance as undergraduates, while two thirds of old university and half of Russell Group universities will link bursaries and scholarships to performance at A level.
Moreover, one in four Russell Group universities plans to link student support to the study of particular subjects, and one in three other old institutions will do the same.
But it remains uncertain how much attention students will pay to the details of bursary packages and scholarships when it comes to choosing their course.
Kat Fletcher, president of the National Union of Students, said: "This survey reveals the real scenario facing higher education in only one year from now; bewildered students riffling through a range of financial support to find a way in which they can realistically afford to go to university.
"Our concern is that this search for a 'good deal' will result in prospective students pushing crucial factors in the decision-making process, such as subject, location and institution, to the back of the queue."
But Jenny Ibison, chief executive of Heist, a specialist marketing services agency that focuses on higher education, suggested that the cost of a course may not be as decisive a factor as the NUS fears.
"My personal view is that, at first, price might not be that big an element of decision-making," she said. Resentment could surface in cases where students pay different prices to study at the same institution or even on the same course, she added.
"When you are on holiday, the golden rule is never to ask the person on the sun lounger next to you what they paid. That will be harder to do at university."
MAIN POINTS ON HOW THE PACKAGES MEASURE UP
- 41 per cent of institutions have carried out no market research on fees and bursaries
- 30 per cent of institutions will target financial aid according to the postcode of the student
- 70 per cent of universities and colleges plan to charge £3,000 for all courses
- Russell Group institutions will offer the largest bursaries. One in three will offer between £1,001 and £2,000
- 40 per cent of university colleges plan to reward students' academic performance as undergraduates
- One in four Russell Group institutions plans to link student support to subject studied
WHAT DO EXPERTS THINK OF GOVERNMENT POLICY?
"The whole policy is a bit weird but then it was decided by politicians rather than rational people."
Vice-chancellor, new university
"I am extremely concerned that the debt levels will serve as an effective deterrent to full-time university study."
Vice-chancellor, London college
"We would not have designed a scheme such as the Government's both to improve the financial position of universities and to protect the interests of those from disadvantaged backgrounds."
Head of admissions, Russell Group university
"The removal of upfront fees and allied improvements in student support will lessen the financial burden significantly and allow students more financial freedom. The key risk, however, remains the failure of the Government to tackle perceptions of debt."
Vice-principal, old university
What's on offer? Depends on the subject studied
How much? £3,000 at the University of Central Lancashire
Conditions: student must opt for engineering or physical science
Comments: the scheme will work alongside a standard bursary of £1,000 for students with a family income of less than £60,000.
Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of Uclan, said: "We will be giving scholarships for subjects of national importance where it is difficult to recruit.
"Financial support will be phased throughout the year to discourage fortune-hunters and encourage the retention of students.
"We did market research with people who will be 18 years old in 2006, with parents and with first-year students. We found that, if the majority of universities charge £3,000 then, if we don't charge that, we are seen as second best. Paradoxically, the second message is that people are concerned about the financial consequences of going to university.
"Some 90 per cent of our students will get some help. We set the £1,000 figure on affordability and simplicity."
What's on offer? Cash linked to family income
How much? £300 at the University of Central England and between £300 and £1,300 at Essex University
Conditions: UCE will offer the bursary to students whose family income is less than £35,000. Essex will adopt a sliding scale
Comments: the changing threshold means that 70 per cent of UCE students will receive a bursary - higher than the 50 per cent eligible for full state support.
At Essex, students whose family income is between the threshold for full state support (£15,000) and £21,000 will receive £3,000 in total from Essex and the Government combined. So, students receiving full state support will get a £300 university bursary, and students whose families earn £21,000 will receive £1,300 from Essex and £1,700 from the state.
Peter Knight, UCE vice-chancellor, said: "There's widespread ignorance in lower-sixth forms about fees and bursaries. Adding complexity to that ignorance is not going to do anyone any good."
Mike Nicholson, head of undergraduate admissions at Essex, said: "Our scheme reflects awareness that students in between £15,000 and £21,000 are most affected by the changes."
What's on offer? Cash for exam performance
Conditions: student must have grades BBC at A level or equivalent at De Montfort; grades AAA at A level or equivalent, plus student must be eligible for the Government's maximum assistance for London at Imperial Comments: the De Montfort scheme will work alongside smaller bursaries that offer £500 for students with family income between £15,000 and £33,000, and Pounds 300 for students with family income less than £15,000. Students will receive only one award.
David Asch, pro vice-chancellor for strategic planning and resources, said: "The bursaries were set at the planned levels to ensure, as far as possible, that students would not be deterred from attending university because of financial concerns. Determining the levels of bursaries was difficult and involved wide consultation and examination of existing evidence, as well as taking account of what the university could afford given the large proportion of our students who receive support with their fees."
The £4,000 Imperial bursary aims to match the cash available at other Russell Group institutions but restricts eligibility to the highest flyers.
Smaller bursaries will be available to students from middle-income backgrounds who get straight As at A level.
PICK AND MIX
What's on offer? A combination of cash and benefits in kind, with some choice for students on the form the entitlement takes How much? Up to £1,750 in cash at Luton University - students can opt to receive less cash and more benefits in kind
Conditions: Luton students who qualify for support - based on the means-testing system used by the Government to allocate the Education Maintenance Allowance - will receive a "tailor-made" bursary - part cash support and, potentially, part help towards the cost of accommodation or computer equipment
Comments: Les Ebdon, Luton's vice-chancellor, said: "As one of the top access universities in the country, I don't doubt we could have got the bare minimum through the Office for Fair Access. But I think there is a real issue about students working as well as studying their way through university. The hours they spend working detracts from the time they can spend on their studies.
"Under the new system they'll have money in their pocket when they need it and pay it back when they can afford it."