I’m Hattie and I’m the new Vice-President (Education) at the University of Birmingham Guild of Students. I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I wanted to write my first blog post about. I took over from Simon a few weeks ago and whilst I’ve spent a lot of time working on various projects (tackling hidden course costs, reshaping the student rep scheme and organising a women in education conference), I don’t want this blog to be solely a diary. I want to use this blog as a tool to explain firstly what’s going on in Higher Education and at this university but also to articulate why I’m undertaking and involved in certain projects, campaigns and actions. I want this blog to put forward ideas and spark debate. One of my manifesto points was around reforming the financial support and bursary system and in this blog post I’m going to outline how students are being unfairly duped by fee waivers which actually help the government rather than the students from lower-income backgrounds which the money is supposed to benefit.
Bursaries and scholarships vs. fee waivers
The main ways in which the universities provide “financial support” to students upon entering university is through bursaries and scholarships, and fee waivers. So what’s the difference between the two? Bursaries and scholarships provide financial support to students whilst they study, i.e. they receive money from the university/government straight into their bank account. Fee waivers knock money off of tuition fees, so students might end up paying £7,000 a year, instead of £9,000 for example.
However, whilst fee waivers may sound like a good deal, in actual fact they offer very little benefit for students from low income backgrounds. Fee waivers only make any difference to a person’s finances after they have graduated and are in a well-paid job, by which point they do not need this kind of financial support. This is because graduates only start paying back their loan after they start to earn over £21,000. As loans are written off after 30 years, by government’s own figures, 40% will never repay enough for a small fee waiver to make any difference whatsoever.
In contrast, bursaries and scholarships give students money whilst their study, helping them to meet the essential but often extortionate costs which come with studying at university – everything from accommodation, to books, to field trips, to food and socialising. One of the main reasons why students drop out of university is due to financial difficulties. Bursaries aid students from low income backgrounds in completing their degree and not being disadvantaged due to financial factors.
So who benefits from fee waivers?
The main beneficiary of fee waivers is the government themselves. The government has made such a mess of the new funding system that they’re anticipating a huge funding deficit for higher education due to loans not being repaid. Fee waivers mean that the university pays a proportion of tuition fees straight to the government. The government likes this as it’s guaranteed income, whereas recouping money from graduates is far more risky as the vast majority will not pay back their loan in full. Fee waivers are also taken into account when calculating the “average fee”, reducing it and therefore allowing the government to claim that institutions are not charging the maximum fee. It is appalling that the government are conning some of the most financially vulnerable students in order to serve its own ends.
Fee waivers (and accommodation waivers) at Birmingham
Data sent through the NUS show that the University of Birmingham is planning to spend £3,282,000 on fee waivers in 2014/15. That’s £3,282,000 that should be spent on supporting disadvantaged students through university, which is instead going straight into the government’s pockets. In addition, they will be spending £1,611,000 less on bursaries and scholarships than they were in 2011/12.
The University’s access agreement for 2014/15 states that:
“In 2014/15, the University will more than match the HEFCE allocation of National Scholarship funding to offer the NSP equivalent level of funding to a greater number of students than would otherwise receive an NSP. These awards will be made available to all eligible first year Home/EU students who fall beneath the qualifying income threshold for Free School Meals of £16,190. Recipients of the National Scholarship will receive an award of £3,000 which is comprised of a £2,000 fee waiver and a cash bursary of £1,000 or can be used as a £3,000 accommodation or tuition fee waiver. NSP awards will also be offered to returning students, should they choose to accept them, at a value of £2,000.”
The National Scholarship Programme is a government scheme which awards £3,000 in financial support for a student but prohibits the awarding of more than £1,000 in the form of a cash bursary. This is a clever scheme by the government which appears to be supporting students from low-income background when in many instances it is instead helping the treasury recoup money from its disasterous undergraduate funding system. However, whilst the £2 million it receives from this scheme is subject to this criteria the £8.1 million of the university’s own resources which it is using to match the NSP funding is not subject to such specifications. The university should not be voluntarily spending more of its money on the same scheme but should instead be putting this extra money into the provision of bursaries and scholarships to help students whilst they study rather than the government.
In addition, whilst the university’s decision to allow students the option of having their accommodation paid for by money from the NSP is preferable to it going into fee waivers, this is a measure which helps to line the university’s own pockets. Students should be treated as the intelligent adults they are and given the autonomy to decide how to spend money designed for financial support as they see fit. Forcing students to use it to subsidise halls pens them into paying for university accommodation which can cost significantly more than accommodation provided by the private sector. Once again, this is the university doing what benefits its own finances more than those of the students the money is meant to be benefitting most.
What needs to change
In 2015, the National Scholarship Programme will be discontinued. We should be ensuring that all of the money the university is spending on financial support for undergraduates comes in the form of bursaries and scholarships, rather than fee waivers. If the University is as committed as it claims it is to ensuring the widening of participation, it should be giving them the financial support essential to their continuation and success in education rather than dressing up schemes which benefit themselves and the government as support for disadvantaged students.