Science grants to lure students

January 23, 2004

Generous bursaries are to be offered to students from less well-off families in a bid to boost the appeal of science.

Among those planning new schemes is the Institute of Physics, which is poised to give grants to physics students from disadvantaged families and universities nationwide are also planning to offer bigger upfront grants to students studying sciences.

But the bursaries, which would be on top of whatever level of state support the government decides to give students, will be offered only if the higher education bill, introducing top-up fees, is passed.

Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, said: "Money up front is much more valuable than having a fee waiver.

"If universities are to concentrate bursaries on shortage subjects that are important to the country, that's something we would welcome."

The institute plans to offer £1,000 a year to physics students with low parental or family incomes from 2006, when top-up fees are due to be introduced.

The scheme, which would operate nationwide, would provide funding for the poorest 10 to 15 per cent of students. Some 2,500 people study physics in the UK.

A decision on whether to implement the scheme was due to be made as The THES went to press.

Imperial College London this week announced that it would provide undergraduate scholarships of up to £4,000 a year for students from less well-off backgrounds who gain the highest A-level grades. Virtually all the college's courses are in science, technology and medicine.

The college estimates that about 150 students would be eligible for the full grant from 2006, rising to 600 three years later.

It intends to commit one-third of the additional income raised through charging £3,000 tuition fees for all its courses to its scholarship scheme. By 2011, the bursary scheme is expected to be worth £4.6 million.

Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial, said: "Our scholarship scheme will help all those who come from the poorest backgrounds while maintaining both quality and standards at Imperial, which is critically important.

"We believe that by offering these scholarships, which reward academic performance and recognise merit among the best students, we will succeed in opening doors, not closing them."

Surrey University is also planning to concentrate its bursary scheme in disciplines such as engineering.

Patrick Dowling, vice-chancellor, said: "If the bill goes through, we would certainly become a high-fee, big-bursary university. We are planning to offer extremely generous bursaries in certain areas, such as engineering, to ensure that we get the students in an area so crucial to the future of the UK."

The schemes build on the earlier experience of Reading University. After introducing £1,000 bursaries for chemistry, Reading saw a 25 per cent increase in applications to read chemistry in 2003 and a 40 per cent increase for 2004.

Ministers this week appeared confident that the crucial vote on the bill's second reading in Parliament on Tuesday would go in the government's favour.

The government's plans for top-up fees were boosted this week by a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The OECD criticised some aspects of the UK workforce's skills base but commended the nation's efforts to boost spending on higher education in its 2004 UK Economic Survey.

The OECD said that the government's student support proposals would "increase the opportunities for students from both high and low-income backgrounds".

Universities this week warned that they would face serious funding difficulties if the bill failed.

Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham and chairman of the Russell Group of research-led universities, said:

"Universities would have to make very difficult decisions about the mix of their student body. Many would opt for more overseas students and postgraduates at the expense of UK undergraduates."

Alisdair Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex and chairman of the 1994 Group of smaller research universities, said: "Universities that support departments where student recruitment is difficult would find it hard to continue supporting them if the bill failed."

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