Show me the money…

Hayley Edwards & Sarah Smith 21 February 2008

A universities’ watchdog recently revealed that at least 12,000 students from low income homes failed to claim bursaries in the last academic year. Universities failed to allocate £19m in bursaries, amounting to 16.5% of their bursary budgets, suggesting that universities are paying back in bursaries significantly less than was promised of the £500m they raised in top-up fees.

The Office of Fair Access (OFFA) claims many students may be unaware of their entitlement to up to £1,000 of grants. David Barrett, assistant director of Offa, said that the students who missed out on the bursaries could account for up to £12m of the unspent £19m. It is believed the primary reason was that they had failed to tick a box on their loan application form which allowed the Student Loans Company to share their data with their university – a trigger qualifying them for a bursary. “We are in the dark as to why students aren’t ticking that box and coming forward to get their money,” Barrett said.

Some universities have also reportedly over-estimated the number of students they are recruiting from lower-income backgrounds, so their budgets have been “too large to spend”. However, last year, up to 20% of eligible students failed to claim their entitled bursaries. The institutions are now being asked to track down those students who were eligible, and offer retrospective bursaries.

Much of this is put down to ignorance. Almost half of students surveyed by the Sutton Trust did not know whether they were entitled to bursaries and less than a third have actively looked into applying for one. Many students from poor backgrounds are put off because they are afraid of getting into debt and very few of them know about bursaries or maintenance grants on offer, according to a report by Staffordshire University. NUS president, Gemma Turnelty, has claimed: “The current system of bursaries and grants is clearly confusing and needs a complete overhaul to boost take up and end inconsistencies.”

The effects of this are most definitely being felt in Cambridge. The process of applying to Oxbridge is already stressful enough, and the small box on the application form is not necessarily primary concern for most applicants. “I don’t even remember noticing this box on the form,” seems to be the consensus, let alone the significance it had.

Confusion is also due to every university having its own bursary scheme. No nationwide guidelines exist. One student, who could have received £2500 in OCR Oxbridge-specific bursaries, was told by her school a week after the application deadline. “It just made me so angry,” she said. “My school wasn’t informed of the bursary scheme until the day before the deadline, and I didn’t get told about it for several days afterwards. It would have meant absolutely no money worries for me this year, and possibly something to fall back on during the holidays. As it is, I’ll be working full-time every chance I get.”

But once here, help may be surprisingly easy to come by. “If you know where to look, you can get a lot of money,” said one student, who did not qualify for a maintenance grant, but received a bursary from their college. “I just asked my tutor and was given several sources of help. But a lot of people don’t even think of doing that. I think some people are still ashamed to admit they need money.”

The problem of seeing the need for financial help as a social stigma may be more prevalent at certain universities. David Baker, chair of the HE colleges’ body, supports this, claiming the fault lies with many of the pre-1992 universities. “It’s not been something that’s been part of their culture”. Pre-1992 universities, or institutions which were regarded as having the status of a university before the provisions of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 came into force, include Cambridge, Bristol, Leeds, Durham, Oxford, Warwick and LSE.

Higher Education minister Bill Rammel has criticised Oxbridge for not making enough effort to attract working-class applicants. While around 20% of students nationwide are from low income families, “at Oxbridge, it’s one in 10,” according to Rammel. “I know the causes for that inequality are complex and not confined to universities’ admissions policies,” he continued. “There’s work that must be done in schools as well and, as a government, we’re doing it. But that’s no excuse for any university to wash its hands of the problem.”

However these comments were refuted by the CUSU Access Officer, Charlotte Richer, who called them; “incredibly ill-informed… Cambridge’s problem is with applications, not admissions. Blaming Oxford and Cambridge isn’t conducive to changing the ratio of students from lower income groups. It just perpetuates in the media the myths that Cambridge is an elitist institution and risks deterring students from target groups applying.” Cambridge has invested three million in access initiatives, and the University’s Admissions Director Geoff Parks has also been keen to point out that the Bursary Scheme has been significantly extended of late.

In response to claims of thousands of pounds of bursaries going unspent, Professor John Rallison, director of the Isaac Newton Trust, said, “We make strenuous efforts to publicize the availability of and eligibility criteria for student bursary support to ensure that no student need be deterred from studying at Cambridge on economic grounds.” Statistics have also been published recently indicating that Oxford outdoes Cambridge in contributing to students on low income. Last year Cambridge gave away 19.4% of its extra income from fees, in comparison to Oxford’s 35.2%.

Cambridge bursaries are worth up to £9,450 over three years or £12,600 over four years. UK students accepted onto a Cambridge course and in receipt of the full £2,825 maintenance grant, as assessed by their Local Authority (LA), will qualify for the full £3,150 per year bursary (£5,250 per year for some mature students). They estimate typical term-time living costs for students at Cambridge to be about £6,000 per year.

Those not in receipt of the full maintenance grant, however, can suffer. One student was told by the Student Loans Company that due to her parents income, it was assumed that she would receive significant parental support. “What they didn’t acknowledge was that my dad had been unemployed for most of the previous year,” she said. “Because of the way the applications work, he was assessed based on the year before when he had a well-paid job. With only my mum’s income they couldn’t afford to contribute even half as much.”

There have been reports both within and outside Cambridge of an apparent increase in prostitution in order to fund academic courses. The revelations have sparked nationwide interest in just how some students are funding their lifestyles. The rise of escort websites has been cited as a factor in this. Police estimate that up to 20,000 students are involved.

A rise in applications to study at US universities could also be due in part to the more readily available financial rewards system there. A study of the eight Ivy League universities show that there was a 38% increase in the number of British undergraduates starting courses last autumn compared with 2006. Harvard nearly doubled its numbers – from eight to 15 – and is keen to attract more with a recruitment drive in state schools. American admissions officers are keen to emphasise that there are numerous grants and scholarships worth thousands of pounds on offer. An Oxford spokeswoman admitted that “there is no way we can compete with some of these financial packages”.

Recently it was revealed that hundreds of thousands of pounds have even been paid out to prisoners on distance learning courses in maintenance grants. According to preliminary investigations by the government, 250 prisoners have received up to £250,000 in maintenance grants since 1998, of which £120,000 was paid out last year. An additional £250,000 of loans was paid out by the Student Loans Company (SLC) over the last 10 years.

Hayley Edwards & Sarah Smith