THES reporters look at the distortions caused by the student finance system.
Universities are being forced to deny opportunity bursaries to thousands of poor students because they do not live in the right area.
Bursaries of £2,000 over a three-year course were introduced by former education secretary David Blunkett last year. Initially, only students from low-income households living in the government's Excellence in Cities areas, part of the Excellence Challenge programme designed to widen participation, were entitled to them. But in February, the scheme was extended to Education Action Zones.
They were distributed to universities and colleges by the Higher Education Funding Council for England according to the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds already present.
The University of the West of England has had 500 applications for its 84 bursaries. "We had so many applications from those outside the designated areas that we have used the Hardship Fund to offer them £300 each to help with the cost of coming to the university. We have allocated 62 bursaries so far and offered 300 people the extra £300," said Neil Harrison, head of student advice and welfare services at the UWE.
Huddersfield University has had many applications for its 118 bursaries. Pro vice-chancellor Brendan Evans said: "There is an arbitrary nature to it. Because Huddersfield is neither in the Excellence in Cities initiative nor an Education Action Zone, we cannot offer these bursaries to local students - but we can offer them to someone in Barnsley."
Sheffield University has received 289 applications for its 83 bursaries. "These bursaries are also open to student nurses who will not be applying until next March. It is very hard to hold some back," said Liz Hall, assistant registrar responsible for student financial support.
The bursaries are available to students who are:
* Aged under 21 from families with no history of higher education or
* In receipt of an educational maintenance allowance or
* From a family on benefits or earning less than £20,000 a year.
The system is complicated as Education Action Zones, set up to raise standards in disadvantaged areas, are groups of schools, rather than areas. The Department for Education and Skills is still receiving corrections to a full list of schools in the zones.
The bursaries are only available to English students studying in England. The money is administered by Hefce. For 2001-02, 6,370 bursaries have been allocated to universities and colleges at a cost of £6.4 million. There are 1,0,400 full-time undergraduates in the UK.
In areas where universities are yet to establish links with schools through these initiatives, students from outside the designated areas can be offered the bursaries.
But a Hefce spokesperson said: "There have been so many applications that the prioritisation of students in the designated areas effectively excludes these students."
A welfare officer, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: "It's meaningless. The DFES's own figures for means-testing fees suggest that a third of all higher education entrants are from households with an income of less than £20,000, so the potential demand is massive."
Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The NUS firmly believes in the principle of offering grant-based support for non-traditional students. However... the NUS is concerned that the discretionary basis gives no guarantee to students that they will receive the support. We believe that it would be more effective for such grants to be statutory and administered with the rest of the student support package via the local education authority."
Maggie Woodrow, chief executive of the European Access Network, said the bursaries represented just a sixth of the old grant.
Tony Bruce, director of policy development at Universities UK, welcomed additional support for disadvantaged students. But he added: "Universities UK is calling for a single, streamlined, national scheme that would be simple to understand, easy to administer, and targeted well."
A spokesperson for the DFES said: "Opportunity bursaries are being piloted from 2001 to see whether offering additional financial support on a targeted basis before a course starts helps widen participation. £36 million has been put aside for three years starting in 2001-02. Ten thousand bursaries are planned for 2003-04."
Top ten universities for bursaries
Manchester Metropolitan 188
De Montfort 152
Nottingham Trent 133
Central Lancashire 126