Proportion of fee income spent on bursaries and grants varies widely

Offa chief praises system while NUS seeks national scheme to end disparities. Rebecca Attwood writes

March 26, 2009

There is still wide variation in the proportion of fee income that universities spend on scholarships and bursaries for poor students, figures revealed this week.

According to the Office for Fair Access, 24 higher education institutions - excluding those charging fees that are below the maximum allowed - spend less than 15 per cent of their additional income from fees on scholarships and bursaries, while 17 spend more than 30 per cent.

Seventy-eight institutions give bursaries and scholarships to a third or more of their students, while 37 provide such support to more than half of their students.

The disparities in the sector were seized on by Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, who said the average bursary at the new universities represented by the Million+ think-tank was £779, compared with £1,340 at elite institutions in the Russell Group.

Calling for a national bursary scheme, he said: "Financial support should be based on how much a student needs it, not where they happen to be studying."

The proportion of fee income that universities spend on bursaries ranges from 6 per cent to 48 per cent, with half of them spending between 15 per cent and 25 per cent, the Offa figures reveal.

A total of £192 million was spent on bursaries and scholarships for poor students in 2007-08, up from £95 million the previous year.

More than 205,000 students from low-income backgrounds received a financial award, but the proportion of fee income spent on support remained fairly stable, increasing from 21.1 per cent to 21.8 per cent.

In 2007-08, universities more accurately predicted the amount they would spend; in the previous year, the scheme's first, they overestimated by some £19 million. Offa reported that for 2007-08, universities forecast that they would spend £202 million, or 22.6 per cent of their income. However, they spent £10 million less than this amount.

A quarter of universities spent 89 per cent or less than the amount they had predicted.

For the first time, universities were also asked to report how much they spent on students from the poorest households (those with an income of up to £17,910). This group received the vast majority of money spent, some £136 million.

Following worries about the estimated 12,000 students in the lowest-income group who did not claim bursaries in 2006-07, bursary take-up has increased. The number who may have missed out has fallen to about 6,500 a year.

Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa, said the data showed that the system of grants and bursaries complemented the Government's grant and loan schemes "very well".

He said: "I am required to satisfy myself that universities have a bursary policy that is not deterring people going to university on financial grounds, and my team and I are satisfied in each case that that is met."

In future, Sir Martin said, there may not be a need for Offa, although he was clear that the monitoring of bursary provision would continue.

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of large research-led universities, said that in 2007-08, member institutions increased the amount of fee income spent on bursaries to more than £40 million.

"As Offa states, we already have a 'national bursary scheme' in the form of a guaranteed level of support for disadvantaged students through government grants, subsidised loans and no upfront fees," she said. "An additional national bursary system would create many losers and few winners."

However, Mr Streeting said the figures were "no excuse for (the Russell Group) to crow about improving access for poor students".

He said: "Two thirds of Russell Group institutions are giving out less bursary money as a percentage of their additional income than they did the previous year, compared with two thirds of Million+ universities that are giving out more money."

Newman University College spent the largest proportion of additional fee income on bursaries. It used almost half for this purpose.

Who helps most and least: fee income and financial aid
Top ten
Higher education institutionsTotal Offa countable (No)1Total Offa countable (%)2Bursary and scholarship expenditure 2006-07 (%)3 Bursary and scholarship expenditure 2007-08 (%)3
Newman University College9367335.047.9
Liverpool Hope University52,0096622.943.5
University of Bedfordshire2,0346540.040.7
Bucks New University 1,3247035.540.2
Staffordshire University2,7674824.938.3
Anglia Ruskin University2,9657029.536.6
University of Teesside2,1395738.335.9
Edge Hill University2,4816834.935.3
University of Central Lancashire4,7156340.834.5
University of Oxford1,3622335.233.4
 
Bottom ten (excludes those charging fees below the maximum)
Higher education institutionsTotal Offa countable (No)1Total Offa countable (%)2Bursary and scholarship expenditure 2006-07 (%)3 Bursary and scholarship expenditure 2007-08 (%)3
Royal College of Music21165.86.4
Middlesex University2,459325.87.0
Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts151437.78.7
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance109317.28.9
Rose Bruford College4132317.39.8
Institute of Education6394612.19.9
Central School of Speech and Drama57319 4.510.3
University of the Arts London1,6569.910.6
Keele University67853011.511.5
University College for the Creative Arts5755247.911.9
 
1 “Offa countable” students are those from lower-income or other underrepresented groups. Offa defines “lower-income” students as those with an assessed household income of up to £48,330. %3Cbr /%3E2 The proportion of fee-paying students this number represents. %3Cbr /%3E3 Expenditure on students from lower-income and other underrepresented groups only. %3Cbr /%3E4 Eligibility for the bursary scheme has been widened and the value of awards has been increased for 2008-09. %3Cbr /%3E5 Retrospective bursary payments available for students who were eligible but did not claim a bursary. %3Cbr /%3E6 The value of the bursary award will increase in 2009-10. %3Cbr /%3ESource: Office for Fair Access

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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