We need to talk about bursaries and hardship funds

As the state reduces its support for students in real terms, Jim Dickinson considers the role of institutional student finance measures in addressing the cost of living crisis

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I still regularly meet people – both outside and inside the sector – that seem to assume that the vast majority of students are well-off.

In this supporting paper to the Augar review published in May 2019, we discovered that over 40 percent full time English domiciled year 1 students that were paid a maintenance loan in 2016/17 had a residual household income of less than £25,000.

That will be a lower percentage now, of course – but bear in mind that it’s that still-frozen £25k or under that entitles a student to a full maintenance loan.

Hobhouse flowers

In that context the other day Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath put down a handy written question asking the Secretary of State for Education what fiscal steps he plans to take to support university and college students in the context of the rise in cost of living.

Further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan answered as follows:

We are freezing maximum tuition fees for the 2022/23, 2023/24 and 2024/25 academic years. By the 2024/25 academic year, maximum fees will have been frozen for seven years.

Of course, for the vast majority of full-time students, the headline fee level makes not a jot of difference to the “pound in the pocket” of students while on their course.

Students from the lowest-income households have access to the largest ever amounts of support for their living costs in cash terms. Maximum grants and loans for living costs were increased by 3.1% this academic year, and we have announced that they will increase by a further 2.3% next year.

As we’ve noted on the site before, the OBR reckons that RPI inflation for 2022 is going to be 9.8 percent this year. Remember- those on lower incomes are likely to experience a higher rate than that because of their basket of goods. That 2.3 percent increase is a major problem in that context.

In our guidance to the OfS on funding for the 2021/22 financial year we made clear that the OfS should protect the £256 million allocation for the student premiums to support disadvantaged students and those that need additional help.

That’s another way of saying “no, we haven’t increased the top-up support for disadvantaged students either by inflation or by student numbers growth, even though we probably ought to have done both.” It’s also very frustrating because OfS no longer tells us how much of that student premium funding hits the pockets of students either at provider level or national level.

Grant funding to the Office for Students (OfS) for the 2021/22 financial year included an allocation of £5 million to higher education providers in England in order to provide additional support for student hardship.

That’s about £2.50 each, which won’t even buy you a latte in most universities’ privatised catering outlets.

Advice is available from providers and from other sources online to help students manage their money while they are attending their courses.

Ah yes, the old “wear a jumper and jog up and down on the spot to keep warm” school of student financial support. And finally?

Many providers have hardship funds that students can apply to for assistance should individuals’ finances be affected in academic year 2021/22.

Yep – when push comes to shove, it’ll be providers that need to step in here.

What works?

Overall it’s an interesting answer to Hobhouse’s question because not so long ago both ministers and England’s access regulator would carp on about how much providers were expected to spend from additional fee income on student financial support.

Each year for example the Office for Fair Access (now merged into the Office for Students) would tell us, at a provider level, how many “OFFA countable” students each provider had, and how much they were spending on hardship, bursaries and scholarships and fee waivers.

It allowed us to see how generous providers were being with their “additional” (top-up) fee income, and it highlighted that the providers who did the heavy lifting on access were often the ones who could afford the least per head in student financial support.

Throughout OFFA’s time, though, student financial support fell out of fashion somewhat. Research found that bursaries weren’t impacting applications – well no, because information on what’s on offer is so hard to find. An OFFA project found no real link between retention and bursaries between 2006 and 2011 and everyone ran the lines on that graph into this decade. And relentless pressure to evaluate and look for impact – pressure that continues to this day – saw providers worry less about the student experience “buffer” and more about their raw entry, continuation and completion rates.

And maybe it mattered a bit less in the middle of the last decade. Inflation was stubbornly low. When George Osbourne scrapped grants, he increased the value of the maintenance loan substantially. And it’s long been the case that students studying at home – who make up a big proportion of those WP entrants – have had an accidentally more generous statutory maintenance entitlement than those away from home when considered through the optic of their respective costs.

Of course, provider-level reporting and transparency on access agreement student financial support disappeared as OfS’ obsession with outcomes allowed providers to double down on “what works” rather than virtue-signalling through expenditure. But the downside is that we now don’t know what’s being spent – and the more the government expects universities to make up the shortfalls locally, the more we need to know. And we absolutely need to know if universities have taken the opportunity of a different kind of regulation to hide a reduction in their expenditure on student financial support.

If for no other reasons, as I noted in this piece, if you’re a university that’s about to revise your access and participation plan, predictive thinking and preparatory work is now required on the cost of living crisis and lower-income students – especially if your APP doesn’t update everything by reasonable rates of inflation. The point about impact evaluation and student engagement is that it should allow you to predict the impact of your interventions. If we get to September and everyone feigns surprise about the problems here for low-income students, those processes will have failed.

And those universities raising their halls fees by this year’s OBR inflation prediction without doing the same to help for students in their APP? Really?

Some information has become free

To help us to understand what’s been going on, we’ve managed to wheedle out of OfS some data under an FOI request. Basically, ever since the OFFA days HESA has been collecting data on the amounts of student financial support, and the number of students that helps, for each university in England – and here we have that data over the past few years.

It covers four different types of spend on student financial support:

  • Cash: This covers any bursary/scholarship/award that is paid to students, where there is no restriction on the use of the award. This can include BACS payments, cheques, cash awards and any means tested hardship funds that fall outside of the dedicated funding in the Office for Students’ Student Opportunity allocation.
  • Near cash: This includes any voucher schemes or prepaid cards awarded to students where there are defined outlets or services for which the voucher/card can be used.
  • Accommodation discounts: This includes discounted accommodation in university halls / residences
  • Other: This includes all in-kind or cash support that is not included in the above categories. This will include, but is not limited to travel costs, laboratory costs, printer credits, equipment paid for (e.g. laptops, course literature other than loans of equipment), subsidised field trips and subsidised meal costs.

Full screen

We’re not 100 percent convinced about the data quality, this doesn’t tell us how much money is going to disadvantaged students, it doesn’t tell us about need and it in theory doesn’t include stuff funded by what’s now called the OfS Student Premium. But it is, nevertheless, fascinating.

If you have a look at your university – first bear in mind that straight lines are a problem given inflation. Then bear in mind that accommodation discounts in 2019/20 and 2020/21 are bound to have bounced up because of Covid.

What it shows is that in a large number of cases, providers have indeed apparently dramatically reduced the value of student financial support going to students.

And now, thanks to bullet point #1 in Michelle Donelan’s answers to Vera Hobhouse, providers will find it very hard indeed to go back and restore that support at just the moment that students will need it more than ever.

In the mix

For a long time now, the money that students need to get by on has been provided in-part statutorily, in-part by parents, partly by part-time work and partly by institutional financial support.

The department that delivers the statutory support hasn’t looked at what students need since 2014. The parental contribution will be squeezed very tight for that 40 percent and more in coming months. Part time work might top it up, but combine doing 30 hours a week in nightclubs or overnight supermarkets with rocketing anxiety and that’s why everyone’s talking about poor attendance. And that leaves bursaries, rent discounts and hardship funds.

Maybe the government and the Office for Students don’t want to hear this. But I’ve always had the impression that most students tend to be OK with some of their tuition fee income going to support others on their campus to get into and through university. If that gets reduced by stealth – and is in part redirected to prop up attainment in underfunded schools, only for the applicants that benefits to not be able to afford a latte on campus – I don’t think either advantaged or disadvantaged students will ever forgive them.

One response to “We need to talk about bursaries and hardship funds

  1. A useful reminder of the importance of ongoing financial support for students from low income households – should note that while OFFA mandatory bursaries were discontinued at the time of the Students at the Heart of the System White paper (from 2012/13) almost all HE providers still offer them, many of them making use of some evaluation tools developed by a team I led at Sheffield Hallam University (and featuring Neil Harrison at UWE, Anna Mountford-Zimdars from King’s College, London and colleagues from Oxford and Bedfordshire universities. Currently almost 100 HE providers make sue of these tools which are now hosted on the OfS website
    http://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/evaluation-and-effective-practice/financial-support-evaluation-toolkit/ The tool enables institutions to evaluated the effectiveness of their financial support packages; in the majority of cases use of the tools shows that students in receipt of such support are as likely as wealthier students to progress and succeed to good graduate outcomes – hence the title of our report ‘Closing the Gap: understanding the impact of institutional financial support on student success’ https://www.offa.org.uk/egp/impact-of-financial-support/

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