Two-front push for extra places leaves low-income students out in the cold

A pre-1992 university has cut almost £1 million in planned cash support for poorer students while offering tuition-fee discounts for high-achieving applicants so that it can bid for extra places on two fronts.

December 8, 2011

Aston University is one of 25 universities and colleges that have lowered their average fees so that they can bid for 20,000 student places being offered to institutions charging £7,500 or less in 2012-13.

But unlike most other institutions that had their plans approved by the Office for Fair Access last week, Aston's average fee after waivers for poorer students are taken into account is still well above the threshold.

This is because Offa only counts fee waivers for poorer students when calculating averages, whereas the Higher Education Funding Council for England will take all discounts into account, whoever they are aimed at, when judging eligibility to bid for the 20,000 places.

Aston, which is charging a headline fee of £9,000, will aim to meet the £7,500 threshold partly through the take-up by better-off students of its "academic excellence scholarships" - which, in offering £4,000 fee discounts to applicants with AAB or above at A level, are also intended to take advantage of the second government policy to free up places.

At the same time, Aston's revised agreement with Offa removes discounts on accommodation offered to poorer students, although it also plans to spend an extra £3 million on fee waivers for lower-income groups.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute - which forecast an "arms race" in merit-based scholarships to attract AAB students - said the move was an "entirely predictable" result of coalition policy.

"Universities will...have to offer these scholarships as they can't afford not to be attractive to the AAB market," he said.

He added that such scholarships were a "poor use of money and were not providing any benefit to students who actually need it".

Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston, said the university's new package would mean low-income students achieving AAB or above would be entitled to two streams of support worth up to £8,000.

Currently, this would apply to a quarter of its students, she said.

Aston is not the only university among the 25 that could be relying on fee discounts for better-off students to pull its average fee below £7,500.

Nottingham Trent, Roehampton, Wolverhampton and Winchester universities all have averages above the threshold in Offa's statistics, although there may be other reasons for this.

Overall, bursaries among the 25 have been cut by £13.8 million while an extra £37.4 million is being pumped into fee waivers.

The changes have also had little effect on most headline fees for bachelor's degrees.

Although £16.3 million has been wiped from the main fee charges by the 25 institutions, most changes affect foundation degrees and foundation years.

Meanwhile, the sector's average fee, which ministers had originally assumed would be £7,500, has fallen only slightly.

The overall average is now £8,354 (down from £8,393), or, once fee waivers are taken into account, £8,071 (down from £8,161).

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