Cambridge University failed to spend £855,000 from its £5.7 million bursary fund last year.
A study conducted by the Aldwych Group, which represents the students’ unions of Russell Group universities found that out of sixteen of the elite institutions, four met or exceeded their bursary budgets, four failed to disclose any information, and eight – Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Southampton and Warwick – left an average of 19% of their bursary budgets unspent.
Warwick failed to spend the highest proportion of its budget, at 44%.
But no other institution had as much money left unspent as Cambridge.
Josh MacAlister, who chairs the Aldwych Group, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “The system is far too complicated.
“Students that are in need of the most significant support are being deterred because of the complexity of the different schemes.”
He said, “A national bursary scheme would put the money where its needed.”
This announcement coincides with the publishing of two studies arguing that prestigious universities are failing to do enough to attract poorer students.
Research on behalf of the Sutton Trust (a charity that aims to improve educational opportunities for underprivileged children), which is due to be published next month, has found that fear of debt and the apparent complexity of the bursaries system is a strong deterrent for many.
In a survey of nearly 2,000 students, it was found that a large number had no idea whether or not they even qualified for bursaries at all, and very few of those knew where to find such information.
The Office for Fair Access (Offa) is also due to publish a report on bursaries today.
The report is expected to reveal which universities are failing to do enough to attract pupils from worse-performing state schools as well as wider problems with the bursaries system as a whole.
However, a spokesperson for Southampton University was reported as suggesting that the spending shortfall could be due to the students, rather than the universities.
If students do not allow the Student Loans Company to pass on their financial details to their university they cannot qualify for bursaries.
Geoff Parks, Cambridge University admissions tutor, agreed that bursary systems in some institutions were complicated, but said that in his opinion the Cambridge bursary system was “a model of simplicity and transparency”.
He also pointed out that there were no limits on the number of eligible students who could receive bursaries, unlike at some other universities.
He added that the main reason for the budget surplus was that the University did not have enough data to predict the number of eligible students applying, so the budget was set deliberately high to ensure that no student who qualified for a bursary would be turned down.
“A national scheme would have the advantage of simplicity, but would inevitably provide less support to an eligible student than the Cambridge Bursary Scheme does”, Parks told TCS.
“As recent Sutton Trust research showed, Cambridge continues to suffer from perceptions that it is more expensive than other universities.
“Unless we can nail this myth it will continue to harm access to Cambridge.
“Our Bursary Scheme was designed to be a myth-buster, and it is clear that we need to do more to raise awareness of it – and the complexity of the national bursary landscape doesn’t help either.”
“But forcing us into a one-size-fits-all national scheme could only harm access to Cambridge.
And CUSU Access Officer Charlotte Richer was also quick to defend the current shape of Cambridge’s bursaries.
“The Cambridge bursary system is already comprehensive, but most people don’t know much about it.
“CUSU access visits aim to raise awareness of the help that is available.
“I’m not sure a national bursary system would work,” she added.