The University and College Union (UCU) has said a national bursary scheme is required to ensure that all students can access funds to which they are entitled. They described the current system of bursaries as “ludicrous” and suggested it was failing in the aim of encouraging significant numbers of students from lower-income backgrounds.
Their comments follow a report from the university access watchdog, OFFA, which suggests that the amount of financial aid which students currently receive is random.
The report also found that universities with a poor track record of widening participation could spend less on student support rather than more.
A university that has a lot of students from low-income backgrounds is likely to be able to give those students only small bursaries because of the pressure on its total pot of money. However, a university with few students from low-income backgrounds will be able to offer larger bursaries to those students and to support students from wealthier backgrounds.
The money available in bursaries to individual students at any institution can vary year-on-year depending on the number of students from different social backgrounds.
UCU, which represents academic and teaching staff, said its case was strengthened by OFFA’s own research which shows that only two-fifths of students looked for information on bursaries before applying to university. The watchdog’s findings also revealed that one in ten higher education advisors was not aware of bursaries and many of those who had heard of them had “significant gaps in their knowledge”.
“How much financial support universities offer students is a complete lottery,” said the UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt, “It is ludicrous that students’ financial aid is decided in such a random and unfair way”.
She added, “Universities doing the most to attract students from the poorest backgrounds are unable to offer those students the vital funds they need to survive at university. A national scheme would be much easier to navigate and would ensure that those tasked with offering advice to students can point them towards much-needed funds.”