The Independent

Bursaries and scholarships: are you getting enough?

Huge bursary budgets are left unclaimed every year by disadvantaged students, do your homework to make sure you don’t miss out

By Geraldine Hackett


Some £12m in bursaries that should have gone to students from disadvantaged backgrounds starting their degree courses last year was left unclaimed. The reason why such large sums went begging is something of a mystery.

The Office for Fair Access (Offa), the Government agency responsible for increasing opportunity for disadvantaged students, believes students were simply not aware of what was available. Critics say that the complexity of the schemes is the root cause, and blame universities for using the cash to attract the students they want rather than providing for financial hardship.

Funding up for grabs

Universities are offering generous funds for students. For the academic year 2008-9, university expenditure on financial support for students is expected to be around £300m – £100m up on last year. The wealthier universities –Oxford and Cambridge – top the table for generosity.

Students from families on low incomes are eligible for means-tested bursaries of £3,000 a year. (Oxford pays £4,000 in the first year.) Cambridge has no fixed limit on its funds and expects that this year up to a third of the new intake – 2,000 students – will get some bursary money, at a cost to the university of an estimated £2m.

A more typical bursary is £1,000 a year, though some of the newer universities are limited to the minimum £300 a year for students from low income families. There are exceptions. The University of the West of England supports around half its students with bursaries worth up to £1,250 a year. Universities are also giving generous scholarships.

They are not means-tested and universities apply a wide range of criteria to their award. Research commissioned by the Sutton Trust suggests university applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to know about bursaries and scholarships – the exception being students with high GCSE results, who do tend to be aware of the schemes.

Ministers are hoping the changes being put in place for this year’s applicants will improve the take-up. The forms that students are required to fill out have been changed. Applicants will have to opt out of giving their financial information to universities rather than, as previously, consenting to give the information.

More students will become eligible for bursaries because the Government has moved the threshold – it will now be possible for students from families whose income is £25,000 or less to get a full bursary. (The threshold was previously £18,000). In addition, more universities are using the Higher Education Bursary and Scholarship Scheme (HEBBS). It is run by the Student Loans Company (SLC), who allow funds to be channelled through them to students automatically, provided they have consented to give their financial information to the university.

“Institutions are keen to learn from experience,” says Professor Rick Trainor, president of UniversitiesUK. “Those universities that spent less than they estimated have reviewed their access agreements and expect there to be greater take-up in future years.”

Problems with the current system

But the problem remains that schemes are complicated and vary from university to university. The National Union of Students wants the Government to impose a national bursary scheme. Next year’s Government review of university top-up fees will also examine the operation of bursary and scholarship schemes. Within Offa, there is opposition to a national bursary scheme because officials fear it would lead to a levelling down of what is available.

“We think take-up is an awareness problem, and we are still in the early stages of a new system. A national system would have few benefits,” says David Barrett, Offa’s assistant director.

The take-up varies between universities. At Gloucester, students claimed £835,000 of the £1.2m that had been allocated. At City University in London, all of the allocated £900,000 was taken up. Most of the funds paid out by universities goes on means tested bursaries, but large sums are being given by some universities to attract students to courses that are hard to fill or to attract better qualified students than would normally apply to them.

Manchester University will cover the course tuition fees for any chemistry student, regardless of income, who has achieved three As at A-level. Scholarships worth £1,000 a year are given to the most “promising” students that apply for the earth, atmospheric and environmental science courses.

Sheffield University has a list of priority subjects – mainly science and engineering – where it pays bursaries of £260 for each A grade at A-level achieved by applicants.

Hull will pay £1,500 to engineering and technology students who get three Bs or better. Middlesex University has a chancellor’s scholarship that pays £2,000 a year to the student who is considered to have made a significant achievement in sport, community involvement or exam success.

Leeds University offers an organ scholarship worth £450 plus a bursary towards the cost of organ lessons. If a student gains three As at A-level the university gives £500in the first year of entry. It has an enterprise scholarship that offers a one-off payment of up to £4,000. This year it will award 10 enterprise scholarships.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute, accuses universities of using their funds to meet their strategic goals rather than the financial needs of students. “I think the system is fairly defective at the moment,” he says. “The fact that millions are left unclaimed suggests the schemes are too complex and students find it difficult to find out what is available.”

“Some universities have completely lost sight of the  fact that schemes should be about financing the poorest students. They are offering scholarships to attract applicants to particular courses or they are attempting to boost their student entry qualification profile.”

Is a national scheme the future?

The HEPI has begun an analysis of whether there is a case for a national bursary scheme. The report will examine how each university’s contribution to a national fund could be calculated. The results will be published later this year.

When the bursary scheme was first mooted, the newer universities had wanted a national scheme on the grounds that they would easily be outbid for students by the richer institutions, but they were out-voted. The system as it currently operates is unfair in that two applicants with roughly the same qualifications applying to similar universities can be offered widely different finance packages.

The research shows that the least well-informed applicants are from low income homes with parents who did not go to university – and they are the ones that most need the money.

It is difficult to navigate the system, but the Government has designed a bursary map ( which brings together links to the 219 universities and colleges in England so that applicants can find bursary information for all institutions.

To apply for a bursary, students have to approach the university they are interested in to find out what is on offer and how to apply. For some, bursaries are essential. According to a report from Natwest, last year’s entrants can expect to spend £33,500 during a three-year degree and leave with debts of £14,779.


My story: how I got my hands on a bursary

‘I don’t rely on a job to keep going’

Andy McGowan, 20, who has just finished the first year of his law degree at Cambridge University, finds he does not have to worry too much about money, and can have the odd meal out because he gets a bursary of £3,250 a year. “Textbooks for my course are very expensive, so the bursary has really been very helpful,” he says. “I have a part-time job in the holidays, but I don’t have to rely on a job to keep me going.”

The family income is low because McGowan’s father, 56, has a heart condition and has had to retire. His mother has also retired. McGowan got his place through Cambridge’s special access scheme because the amount of time he had to take off school to help his parents had an impact on his GCSE grades. “I find I am relatively well-off, but there are a lot of very well-off students here.

Some have parents who pay their tuition fees; accommodation costs and all their other expenses,” he says. McGowan is the first in his family to go to university. “I am not from your typical Cambridge background and it is a challenge in terms of work, but I have made loads of friends,” he says.


‘The money helped with my rent’

Charlotte Ferguson, 20, has a music scholarship from the University of Gloucestershire where she is studying psychology.The scholarship is worth £300 a year and to win it she had to complete an exam paper and play the flute for the university’s musical director.

It was one of only two instrumental scholarships. The university also awards three choral scholarships. Ferguson has played the flute from the age 12 and was taught at her independent school, Trent College in Nottingham. She left school with a B grade in business studies; D in music and E in chemistry.

She hopes to pursue a career in music therapy with disabled children. “Music helps such children to communicate. The bursary did make quite a lot of difference because I was living off campus in Cheltenham, which is expensive,” she says.

The flat Ferguson shares costs her £75 a week. The university has much to offer students with musical talents. Ferguson sings in the university choir and the chamber choir run by the university’s musical director, Ian Higginson. She also had a part in the university’s version of The Boyfriend. “The campus where I am is quite small so you get to know everyone,” she says. Ferguson has to audition every year to retain her bursary.

University choice: The cost of getting it wrong

Few state schools teach their students about the status differences between universities – even though it is a big factor in how much money they will earn.

Geraldine Hackett reports


Durham Johnston, in the North-east, is one of the few state comprehensives that can give independent schools a run for their money when it comes to getting its pupils into the top universities.

Steve McArdle, head of sixth form, makes it clear to his students that a degree from the University of Warwick will set you up for a high-flying career in a way that may not be case if you get a degree from London Metropolitan or Thames Valley universities.

“I know it is considered politically incorrect by some teachers, but I tell our sixth-formers that employers will be more concerned about which university they attended than the class of their degree,” McArdle says.

Research commissioned by the Sutton Trust and carried out by London”s Institute of Education suggests that McArdle may be unusual in the state sector in pointing out that if you, say, want a job with a big city law firm or a high-powered finance company, you are better off getting a place at a Russell Group university.

“I can understand teachers” reluctance to stress the different status of universities,” he says. “The children”s parents or teachers in the school might be graduates from Teesside University. But it would be doing the pupils a disservice not to provide the information.”

Durham Johnston sends 42 per cent of its sixth-form students to Russell Group universities. It is one of the relatively few comprehensives in the country to send significant numbers of students to the most prestigious institutions.

Even in the successful schools, teachers are reluctant to draw attention to status differences between universities, according to the Sutton Trust study, which surveyed comprehensives that have a good track record in sending pupils to highly selective universities. Many students appeared to have only a vague notion of the status of individual institutions.

The research is backed up by an online questionnaire of 3,000 young people, carried out by PeopleSurv for the Sutton Trust. It found that 51 per cent of people educated in state schools believe that there is no difference in earnings between graduates of different universities, compared with 35 per cent from independent schools who think that there is. Teenagers from poorer backgrounds were the least likely to be aware of the differences.

Schools also fail to warn pupils that they may be jeopardising their chances of getting in to a top university by opting for “soft” A-levels. That is because some universities won”t accept soft subjects such as film studies, media studies, leisure studies or dance. Cambridge University, for example, advises applicants against taking more than one subject from a list of 25 “soft” subjects that appears on its website.

“Doing these A-levels individually is not a problem – it is doing too many of them,” says Geoff Parks, Cambridge”s director of admissions. “We know the schools” bright students are on track to get As, but in subject combinations that essentially rule them out.”

The new National Council for Educational Excellence, in a report to be published later in the summer, is expected to recommend that every secondary school appoint a senior teacher to give guidance to pupils about their choice of courses from age 14. League tables ranking schools on the proportion of pupils they send to university could also be published.

The wrong choice of university can cost a great deal in terms of getting a highly paid job. Research by the London School of Economics (not yet published) suggests that the wage returns for graduates from a top-ranked university can be as much as twice as high as the returns for a graduate from a more lowly ranked institution.

Separate research at London”s Institute of Education has found that nearly one-fifth casino online of graduates from elite universities in the mid-1990s were now earning more than £90,000, compared with only eight per cent and five per cent of those who had gone to other “old” and “new” universities. More than one-third of the graduates from elite universities now owned their home outright, compared with 21 per cent of graduates from other universities and 13 per cent of non-graduates.

Does all this research constitute evidence that state schools are failing their university applicants? Most schools insist that they do tell pupils that universities differ in status. However, one head, who did not want to be named, says that it probably is the case that some schools don”t encourage their students to apply to the elite universities.

“There are some teachers who think their pupils won”t fit in at the top universities,” he says. “There are teachers who are antagonistic to the idea of privilege, and that is how they see elite universities. We encourage our students to apply for the top universities, but we are not particularly critical of ‘new’ universities. Those new universities might be the best bet for some of our students.”

At St Charles Catholic sixth-form college in Ladbroke Grove, west London, where 82 per cent of pupils are from ethnic minorities, a group of AS-level students has a hazy grasp of the university pecking order. They know that Oxford and Cambridge are the top two universities, but have not heard of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, though they knew that Imperial College and Warwick are leading universities.

They do, however, have a good idea of the universities they want to go to and the grades they would need. Abigaile Cawley Gentles, 18, who has Jamaican parents, is predicted to get grades of AABC at A-level, and hopes to go to UCL to do architecture. Zainab Moh, 17, who lived in Nigeria until she was nine, knows she needs A grades if she is to get a place at King”s College London to study medicine. Mara Wamot, 18, who is Polish, is applying to Portsmouth to do sports science; she would have preferred to go to Loughborough, but doesn”t think she will get the four As needed.

To help with their choices, the college organised a special day for them with admission tutors from 25 universities. Paul O”Shea, the college”s principal, admits that his students are probably not as clued up about the differences between universities as those from independent schools, but that doesn”t stop them getting places at leading universities, he says.

“We know students” predicted grades and we advise them on their Ucas choices. This year we have three students holding Oxford offers. If a student has the potential to go to a top university, we make sure they apply,” he says.

The findings of the PeopleSurv poll have prompted the Russell Group of universities to hold special conferences to inform teachers and advisers about applying to university. “We are alarmed at increasing evidence that some teachers may not be encouraging some of their students to consider Russell Group universities,” says Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group. “It is particularly important that pupils from families who haven”t been to university, or who have less knowledge about higher education than others, are given robust support and guidance at school.”

The Institute of Education”s research on successful schools recommended that pupils be encouraged to think about university entrance much earlier than they currently do. This is particularly important in schools without sixth forms, where the model of high-aspiring sixth-form students is missing, they say. Their study found that large sixth forms are generally more successful, and warned against the proliferation of small ones.

The study also suggested that the Government set up pilot programmers of extra support for the application process in schools less experienced at getting their pupils into leading universities. But Durham Johnston”s McArdle believes that even such efforts will leave state schools at a disadvantage. “The independent schools can invest more time on getting their pupils into the target universities,” he says. “They cultivate their links with admission tutors. We have to work just as hard at it.”

Meet the headteacher who is at war with Whitehall

It has been praised by Ofsted and the parents love it, but Newall Green in Manchester is facing a battle for survival – because it is failing to hit Government targets.

By Geraldine Hackett


Newall Green High on the Wythenshawe estate in south Manchester looks like a school that has been given a death sentence.

The institution achieved notoriety in 2006 when a former pupil and her parents were jailed for murdering the mother and father of another pupil by pouring petrol through their letterbox. It is now a building site, with lessons taking place in temporary Portakabins. And it is also one of 638 state schools that ministers have on their hit list because of its exam results.

The Government is threatening to close schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths. In this part of Manchester – a mainly white, working-class estate – there is not a school for miles around that hit the Government”s target last year.

But, although less than a quarter of its fifth-formers managed the target, Newall Green is a good school. According to the inspector from Ofsted, the standards watchdog, who visited it in May 2007, it does all in its power to maximise the life chances of its pupils. The school was judged to be highly effective, and to have an outstanding head in Neil Wilson.

An earlier report in 2002 also praised the school, saying its pupils made better progress than might have been expected given their attainment when they arrived at age 11. But its exam results have put it in a very low-performing league

The big question is whether the school really will close. Manchester is putting in £17m to rebuild Newall Green, as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and Wilson is confident that the school will reach the 30 per cent target this year.

The four schools that serve the vast Wythenshawe estate – once the largest council estate in Europe – draw from the most deprived areas of the city. The estate has a reputation for being tough, but there is also some attractive private housing.

At Brookway High, only 13 per cent of 15-year-olds reached the target last year; Parklands High did slightly better at 17 per cent, and St Paul”s Catholic High did best at 26 per cent. Of Manchester”s comprehensives, 12 of 14 failed last year to reach the target, prompting the Government to make extra funds available to raise standards.

When he refers to the Government’s determination to close the worst performers, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Schools, fails to mention that some deprived areas are full of institutions that perform poorly in the league tables. In Barnsley in south Yorkshire, for example, eight of the borough”s 14 schools have failed to reach the 30 per cent target.

The solution suggested for Wythenshawe was to close two schools and reopen them as academies. So Newall Green will survive, rising from the ashes complete with a new sixth-form block.

Although its raw scores are low, the school does exceptionally well on contextual value added, an index that takes into account the background and previous attainment of pupils. Almost half are entitled to free school meals, with around a third needing some kind of extra attention for mild learning difficulties or serious disabilities.

The school”s worst moment was two years ago, after Natalie Connor, a former pupil,  developed an `“obsessive” hatred for her schoolmate Lucy Cochrane. The feud led to the murder of Lucy”s mother and father by Natalie”s parents. Petrol was poured through the letterbox of the Cochrane home, killing the parents and injuring Lucy.

Incredibly, that event has had little impact on the school”s popularity. Parents are clamouring to get their children into Newall Green, and families now have to live within a mile to get a place; Wilson says that 56 parents are appealing against being refused.

He can reel off a list of statistics about his 900 pupils: more than a third do not have access to a car; 230 didn”t go away for a holiday last year; a higher than average number come from single-parent families.

“What can be done around here if the Government closes schools below the target?” he asks. “Children would have to be bussed to schools. It is just a nonsense.”

Ofsted seems to agree. In its report, it complimented the school for dealing firmly with bad behaviour and bullying, and for the guidance and support given to pupils.

“You get encouraged by the teachers,” says Tom German, 15, the son of a lorry driver and a doctor”s receptionist, who is predicted to get at least five good GCSEs to add to his others in English and expressive arts, as well as his four GNVQs. “The new buildings make it better. We have got fantastic new computers.”

Ofsted recognises that a school can be excellent and yet have poor exam results. At All Hallows Roman Catholic school in Salford, inspectors have praised what they say is “outstanding achievement” and “outstanding progress” by students. The head, Stephen Almond, was rated as excellent. However, last year less than a quarter of pupils got five good GCSEs including English and maths. And yet ministers couldn”t close the school because, as in Wythenshawe, none of the four closest comprehensives achieved the 30 per cent target either.

Education experts are sceptical about the Government”s policy. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School Leaders, is critical of the targets. “They take no account of the intake of a school, and they are an inaccurate indicator of a school”s effectiveness,” he says. “The Government has to accept the need for more reliable indicators that take account of value added rather than raw results.”

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, doesn”t believe that closing a school and moving pupils to a newly built one guarantees better exam results.

“Half the variation in school results is determined by the intake,” he says. “The other significant factor is the quality of the teachers. The new school will have the same pupils, and there is no certainty it will attract good teachers.”

He believes that ministers would be foolish to close down good inner-city schools that work well with a difficult intake. “I think the approach is designed to put more energy into the academy programme, but it”s a wrong way to judge schools. The five A* to C measure is not the only way. It is possible that a school with poor exam results is doing well.”

Ministers want to replace poorly performing schools with academies, but there is little evidence yet that this will help. Of the seven academies that have been open longest, only one – King”s Academy in Middlesbrough – has managed results above the 30 per cent target. At Unity City Academy, also in Middlesbrough, just 12 per cent of fifth-formers managed five good GCSEs in 2007. The Business Academy in Bexley, sponsored by the property developer Sir David Garrard, achieved just 19 per cent.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education at Birmingham University, believes that the Government has to do something about the social mix of schools in disadvantaged areas if it wants to shift results. “With lots of these schools, the raw results are only telling you about the intake,” he says. “They are not an indicator of the impact of the school. If they had a normal distribution of ability, their results would be different.”

“While schooling depends so much on where you live, there is little that can change. It is possible to change catchment areas or to introduce ability banding, but such measures are not popular. The lottery system is loathed by many parents.”

The Government”s threats of closure seem empty: ministers cannot close down the schools, nor can they afford to bus children long distances. The academies programme is an attempt to tackle problems in areas of concentrated deprivation where there are very few children getting a decent fist of GCSEs, but so far the results are not encouraging. Ministers recently promised another £200m for school improvement measures.

Philip Hunter, the Government”s schools adjudicator, has hinted that ministers have to tackle social segregation. The way to reduce the number of schools with poor results, he says, might be to close down those with large numbers of children entitled to free school meals.

Ed Balls and Gordon Brown might think it sounds tough when they say they will close schools with poor results, but it still leaves the question of what to do with their pupils. Ministers have until 2011 to come up with the solution, which means that schools like Newall Green have three years to meet the target.