Will cash deals fill courses?

July 28, 2006

A Times Higher investigation finds that students are being told discounts may be offered in clearing, writes Lee Elliot Major

Staff at several universities have told prospective students that they might be offered last-minute financial deals during the final rush for degree places this year.

This evidence that some admissions staff are considering late financial incentives to fill degree courses in the first year of top-up fees will confirm the worst fears of access regulators, who urged universities to resist such deals.

Sir Martin Harris, the Government's access tsar, warned that it would be unfair if students who failed to meet predicted A-level grades or applied late to university found themselves better off than more-qualified students who secured their first-choice places.

Two A-level students working for The Times Higher contacted more than 50 universities saying they were not expecting to achieve their predicted A-level grades. They asked whether the universities were considering last-minute financial deals in clearing. Most universities said they were not.

Yet staff at City, Hertfordshire, Hull, Huddersfield and Liverpool John Moores universities and the University of the West of England suggested that discounts for clearing places were being considered.

At one university, an admissions officer said that late special offers would possibly be available "to sweeten the pill" for students. At another university, a member of staff said that there was some money left for financial aid, but the scheme would probably be based on "academic merit".

All six institutions have since denied that late offers will be available and some have launched internal investigations.

Sir Howard Newby, UWE vice-chancellor, said: "UWE will not and has not considered discounting the price of courses for students in clearing or offering special bursaries for these students. The reputational damage far outweighs any financial gain from discounting. It's a mug's game."

The revelations will cause concern as English institutions brace themselves for the uncertainties of the top-up fees market.

A senior university official said: "If following A-level results you haven't filled all your places, then there will be enormous temptation to offer deals."

One vice-chancellor said: "Some universities will be daft enough to do it."

He estimated that discounts would be in the 10 to 20 per cent range, and would come from a reduction in fees or from larger bursaries.

Julian Nichols, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said: "It is unacceptable that one student could sit next to another in a lecture theatre and be paying considerably less for the same course."

David Barrett, assistant director of the Office for Fair Access, advised against "snap decisions during clearing" but said Offa "had no powers to stop that happening". Offa said it was less concerned about an official "Late Applicant Scholarship" scheme advertised by Brunel University. The scheme offers £2,000 a year for late applicants who have not registered in clearing but decided to apply to university after all.

Research: Devina Shah and Elen Griffiths

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