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Student Support Bursaries: Widening participation?

Jan 25 2008 12:30
Kirsty Patterson
Kirsty Patterson discusses student bursaries and loans.
Kirsty Patterson

Since the advent of Top Up fees new funding models have been introduced to target students from poor socio-economic backgrounds and to help reduce mounting fears of student debt. Traditionally, students with lower levels of financial support are forced into taking higher student loans and accumulate greater levels of student debt than their more fortunate colleagues.

Under the new loans system once your household income falls beneath a particular level, instead of getting a higher loan amount, students with poor financial support begin to receive a non-repayable maintenance grant as a proportion of their ?loan?. While the total amount of money available remains the same the amount of debt associated with it decreases. The same is true for students who would qualify under the benefits system for income support. Instead of receiving higher loan payments and increasing levels of debt, the loan amount is reduced by a non-repayable grant making up a proportion of their total allocation.

While part of me argues that top up fees and student loans, both repayable after graduation, should negate the need for income assessed support, the playing field is never as level as one might think. Person A, one of six children of a single parent family, may have the same starting salary as Person B, Public School educated son of an Oil Tycoon and a Barrister, so why should Person B receive less funding through University? Despite theoretically having become equals through their education it is highly likely that Person A, due to lack of financial support from their family, will have accumulated significantly more debt than Person B in the process.

Efforts being made under the new loans system address this balance by reducing levels of debt for students from poor socio-economic background. However, institutions are also encouraged to offer additional Student Support Bursaries to attract these students into areas they would not traditionally consider. The Russell Group, the UK?s leading 20 research intensive institutions, has recently been criticised for failing to achieve target spends for widening participation. An estimated £3m has gone unused in schemes across eight of these top universities. This can be attributed to poor advertising of the Bursary scheme or a lack of eligible students being successful in applying to the Universities.

Imperial has escaped some of this criticism by reaching its target spend on Study Support Bursaries. These Bursaries, of up to £4000, are available to students whose LEA assessment shows them to be eligible for an HE Maintenance Grant. Designed to cover additional maintenance and study related costs the bursaries are a much needed helping hand for students choosing Imperial for their degree. They are automatically awarded based on your means-tested loan allocation provided that the applicant has agreed to let their financial details be shared with the institution. This automatic awarding of bursaries is clearly effective compared to other institutions who are falling far short of their budgets. Other successful institutions such as Edinburgh provide bursaries to cover specific costs such as Accommodation to encourage a high take up in students that would benefit from the money.

Does meeting a budget for student support really tell us anything about widening participation though? Without comparing the budgets of the different institutions, rather than their underspends, the data is almost meaningless. Plus the barriers to widening participation at Imperial College go far further than simple financial restrictions. While poor quality teaching of science and maths based subjects continues there are simply not enough applicants coming through who meet the entrance criteria for Imperial College. To maintain a high calibre of student and teaching at Imperial it is not enough to simply throw money into support schemes in the name of widening participation.

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