Calls for National Bursary Scheme are profoundly misguided

18 September 2008

Responding to a report released by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) which calls for universities to replace their individual bursaries for disadvantaged students with a national bursary system, Director General of The Russell Group, Dr Wendy Piatt said:

“One could understand the call for a national bursary scheme if there were no financial assistance available for students in need. But this is just not the case. The current system of student support in England is one of the most generous in the world. We already have a ‘national bursary scheme’ in the form of a guaranteed level of support for disadvantaged students through government grants, subsidised loans and no upfront fees. To suggest that it is somehow wrong for universities to then choose to top up this support with bursaries that far exceed the amount originally required by OFFA seems profoundly misguided.

“A national bursary system would create many losers and few winners as there would be relatively small increases to a standard bursary but many high-achieving, low income students would lose out on substantial support currently available. They and their institutions would effectively be ‘taxed’. This is not only unfair but also threatens to undermine many of the efforts institutions are making to improve the student experience and to widen participation.

“It is important to keep the link between students' fees and the institution they attend as one way of ensuring that the learning experience continues to improve. Similarly, any forced pooling of funds is likely to damage our efforts to encourage philanthropic giving as donors usually want their contribution to benefit students in their chosen university.

“Not only is there absolutely no evidence that a national bursary system would widen participation, it is more likely to hamper the efforts of Russell Group universities to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to apply.  Research at one Russell Group university found that 80% of lower-income entrants in 2006 said the bursary scheme influenced their decision to choose that institution. In the same year the proportion of low-income students rose at this institution. Potential students should be encouraged not only to progress to higher education but also to choose the university and course that best suits their aptitude and maximises their life-chances. We know that some students are put off applying to leading universities because of lack of information particularly about the costs and benefits of going to a top university; and low expectations and aspirations. Bursaries are one tool to help overcome these barriers and persuade students from non-traditional backgrounds to consider the best university and course for them.

“Being forced to pool income from fees would restrict a university’s ability to invest in its own projects to widen participation. The complexities of trying to manage a national bursary system centrally make any such scheme impractical and expensive.

“The report claims that some modern universities have had to ‘sacrifice’ a significantly larger proportion of additional fee income in order to ‘hold on’ to their students.  On average, Russell Group universities have spent more on bursaries than the sector, with over £20 million invested in 2006-07. We do not see this as a ‘sacrifice’ but part of a commitment to widening participation and further increasing the diversity of students at our universities.

“Finally, there is a staggering body of evidence which demonstrates that academic attainment before the age of 18 is the most important factor in whether a student will go on to higher education, not financial considerations. When A-level grades are taken into account, students from deprived and wealthy backgrounds are equally likely to go to university. Bursaries are important in ensuring that applicants aren’t put off from applying to leading universities but financial support alone does little to help those who have neither the qualifications nor the aspirations to go to university.”

Notes to Editors

  1. The HEPI report “Financial Support in English universities: a national bursary scheme” – is available here
  2. For 2008/09 a typical full-time student living away from home outside London from a household with an income of less than £25 000 per year is entitled to a £2,835 maintenance grant from the Government along with a further £3,365 maintenance loan and a loan of £3,145 to pay for fees. Any higher education institution which charges the full annual fee must provide a minimum bursary of over £300 pounds. Most institutions provide much more than this.
  3. A student from a low income background attending a Russell Group university receives, on average, £1,680 in bursary money- according to OFFA statistics. This is nearly six times the minimum bursary required by OFFA. For some of our institutions, students from low income backgrounds with high A-levels can receive as much as £4,000 - £5,000 a year.
  4. According to the Ipsos MORI Young People Omnibus Survey (2008), for respondents who said they were unlikely to proceed into higher education, the lack of affordability and debt aversion ranked 12th and 10th respectively as a deterrent factors.
  5. Government research has found that, once level of attainment is controlled, there is little difference in entry to Higher Education for students from low and high socio-economic backgrounds.  Fig 2.15, Office of National Statistics (2004). “Focus on Social Inequalities: Education, Training and Skills”. London: TSO
  6. Studies have shown that bursaries from individual institutions can have a bigger impact on students’ success rates and perceptions of institution than minimum sector-wide bursaries. Hatt, S. et al (2005). “Bursaries and Student Success: a Study of Students from Low-Income Groups at Two Institutions in the South West”. Higher Education Quarterly, v59 n2 p111-126

Policy area

Related case studies