Too few points for the big prize

August 10, 2001

Claire Sanders talks to the students for whom opportunity has not knocked.

Universities will deny opportunity bursaries to thousands of needy students this summer.

For those turned down, the news can be devastating, especially as the reasons often appear flimsy. And for those in universities faced with the task of turning people away, the situation is stressful.

Kerry Matthews was refused an opportunity bursary to study speech and language therapy at Sheffield University because her sister is already studying for a degree at Chester University College.

"I do not think I can afford to study at Sheffield now," Ms Matthews said. "Their halls of residence are quite expensive. I am now thinking of going to the University of Central England in Birmingham as it is cheaper."

Her mother, Lynne Matthews, said: "I am a single parent and have struggled hard to bring up my three children. Kerry is being disadvantaged simply because she has a sister at college. It is terribly unfair. I know there is only so much money to go around, but I'd like to meet the people whose situation is worse than mine. Is the government saying that we can only send one child to university?" As Ms Matthews is 18, the family will also lose their weekly family credit and allowance.

Mrs Matthews did not go to university herself, nor did her former husband.

Ms Matthews has been told by Sheffield that she can apply to the hardship fund once she is at the university.

"There is a big difference between applying to the hardship fund and being awarded an opportunity bursary. I feel as if I am being forced to beg and I'm worried as I've heard that it is really hard to get support from the hardship fund," she said.

Ms Matthews lives on the Wirral and is working at a shoe shop this summer to build up a nest egg. "I will have to work evenings and weekends all year if I go to Sheffield," she said.

Mrs Matthews said: "My eldest daughter is also working her way through her degree. In fact, her earnings brought her over the threshold for free NHS prescriptions. She is asthmatic and it has been expensive for her. Whatever you do, you get penalised."

Sheffield University has also turned down Emma Brander's application for an opportunity bursary. She lives in Coventry and is planning to study law.

Ms Brander's application was turned down for two reasons. "The first problem is that I did a degree as a mature student," said her mother, Jo Brander, a single parent who is unemployed. "I am one of 21 grandchildren and the only one to study for a degree. I have encouraged Emma down this path and sometimes wonder if I have done the right thing. I feel her future has been tarnished even before she has begun, and I've inflicted a lifetime of debt on her."

But Ms Brander is clear that higher education is the right thing for her. "I'd hate to start a job now and be limited because I don't have a degree. I just try really hard not to think about the financial side."

She is nevertheless working a day job and an evening bar job all summer. "I'm working 70 hours a week to try to save," she said.

Ms Brander's second problem is that she went to a Roman Catholic state school until she was 11 years old and then won a scholarship to Bablake, an independent school. Bablake is not in the government's Excellence in Cities initiative or an education action zone.

"The government wants to get more state-school pupils into higher education and seems to have forgotten about people like me," Ms Brander said.

"We never even knew we could apply for an educational maintenance allowance until it was too late," Mrs Brander said. "My daughter may not be from a deprived school, but she is from a deprived background.

"I've got used to being means-tested. My income has always been considered so low that Emma got her fees paid and got an award for the school uniform. And now we find that Emma's application for a bursary has been turned down because suddenly we don't fit the criteria any more.

"I know Emma is capable of getting a first. I will feel very sad if she doesn't just because of financial reasons," Mrs Brander added. "I don't know what we will do if she wants to carry on studying. I think I'll have to sell my house."

Liz Hall, assistant registrar at Sheffield with responsibility for student financial support, turned down Ms Matthews's and Ms Brander's applications.

"We set up a point system for allocating the bursaries," she said. "We based it on the government guidelines as well as on our own widening-participation targets, such as recruiting local students."

Sheffield has had 298 applications for 83 bursaries.

"It is very sad, but Kerry Matthews was turned away because her sister is in higher education. She came just three points below our cut-off point of 85.

"Emma Brander was disadvantaged by her school and her mother's degree. She came at least 15 points below the cut-off," she said.

"Obviously, as we were going through the applications we were terribly concerned to choose the right applications.

"But no matter how hard we tried we still feel that some deserving cases have slipped through the net. We have advised these students to apply for hardship funds the moment they arrive."

Who can qualify for an opportunity bursary?

Opportunity bursaries were introduced last year by former education secretary David Blunkett.

Students receive £1,000 of the £2,000 bursary in the first year and £500 in the subsequent two years.

For 2001-02, 6,370 bursaries were allocated to universities and colleges by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

They were allocated according to the number of disadvantaged students already enrolled. No university received fewer than ten bursaries.

Students are eligible only if they are under 21, from a family with no history of higher education, live in one of the government's Excellence in Cities areas or education action zones or are in receipt of an educational maintenance allowance or from a family on benefits or earning less than £20,000 a year.

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