With the recent replacement of maintenance grants with loans and the upcoming rise in tuition fees, the cost of a degree in the UK – already among the highest in the world – is set to get even higher.
The burden is particularly felt by students from less well-off backgrounds, who will now have to take out a bigger loan than their wealthier peers to fund their studies. Research by Ucas and others shows that one of the main barriers to getting more young people from under-represented groups into university is an aversion to taking on debts that appear ever more astronomical the poorer you are.
However, there is still financial support for less-advantaged students out there. Universities have to set aside a certain proportion of their tuition fee income to widen participation for certain groups of students – a large part of which goes into bursaries for those who can’t rely as much on their parents to help make ends meet.
Indeed, financial support accounts for far and away the largest part of universities’ widening participation budgets, with the combined spend by institutions totalling £478.2 million in 2014-15. Universities have no minimum or maximum amount they need to spend on financial support, which means the amounts on offer can vary wildly between them. Eligibility is normally – although not always – based on parental income and students who might qualify for thousands at one institution may only be able to get a few hundred at others. Financial support also comes under many different names – such as bursaries, scholarships, fee waivers – but whatever it is called, students don’t have to pay it back.
The Ucas search tool includes details of the support on offer and who is eligible for each course. There will also be more information on individual university websites. Universities normally offer different amounts on a sliding scale of household income so the less your parents earn the more you’ll get. Many bursaries won’t support students with a household income of more than about £40,000, although some set the threshold higher or lower.
Getting your hands on this money can be relatively straightforward since universities will calculate who gets what based on the details they receive in your student finance application. That’s why it’s essential to give the Student Loans Company permission to share your personal and financial information with the universities you are applying to when you make your student finance application, otherwise they won’t have access to the information they need to work out if you’re owed anything. Many will also offer extra financial support for care leavers, which may also involve things such as help with accommodation over the holidays, so if you are leaving care make sure you notify the Student Loans Company of your situation when you apply. This is in addition to the care leaver’s bursary provided by local authorities.
It’s important to do more research on the university website into what you’ll actually get, however, since it might not necessarily just all be money straight into your account. Financial support could also take the form of discounts on accommodation or books, for example, while some universities might load money on to a prepaid card that you can only spend on certain things. Knowing this will help you to budget better, and you can find more advice on managing your money on Brightside’s Student Calculator and Which? University.
You might also find offers of a "fee waiver" whereby universities reduce your tuition fees. While less debt is obviously a good thing, remember that since your tuition fee loan is paid directly to your university and you only begin to repay it after university, fee waivers won’t actually give you any more money in your pocket during your studies.
There may also be additional money for students from the local area or who are studying specific courses. The latter are normally less straightforward to apply for, as they’re often awarded based on attainment alongside financial eligibility. This means you will normally need to have a minimum standard of A-level results, or in some cases a level of proficiency in sport or a musical instrument if it’s a relevant course. You might also have to write an application explaining why you deserve and would benefit from the support, and go for an interview.
Certain charities and educational foundations also provide financial support. These range from big organisations such as the Helena Kennedy Foundation to the more obscure likes of The South Square Trust. The exact nature of who and how they help is just as diverse. For example, there are lots of local charities that focus on supporting young people from their area to study at any university, while the George Viner Memorial Fund has grants for course materials solely for black and minority ethnic (BME) students on media courses. The best place to start is by visiting a website such as Unigrants, which allows you to search the different organisations and the support they offer.
Such financial support can make a big difference to individual students, but some experts have questioned whether it is effective in increasing the overall numbers of poorer students in the system. It’s certainly the case that – whatever you think of its fairness – the very opacity of the current student finance system is off-putting to prospective students, and universities’ money might be better spent making it more transparent, as well as on outreach activities earlier in a young person’s education to give them the knowledge and confidence to aspire to university in the first place, as the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has argued. Financial support isn’t the only answer to social mobility in higher education of course, but if that carrot is dangling then those who can should definitely try to take a bite.
Written by Brightside in collaboration with Which? University