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Higher Education: Scholarships

Volume 459: debated on Thursday 3 May 2007

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what mechanisms exist for the Office for Fair Access to ensure higher education institutions spend budgeted levels on income-assessed non-repayable bursaries. (131430)

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) requires institutions in their annual monitoring returns to report on the amount of spend on bursaries and scholarships disbursed to low income and other under-represented groups. OFFA is then under a statutory duty to provide an annual report to Parliament containing an overview of progress. Monitoring returns are due at the end of the academic year (end of July 2007). OFFA will analyse the returns over the summer and publish a short report on the findings of the monitoring process in autumn/winter 2007.

OFFA has successfully ensured that all institutions that have chosen to set fees above the basic level have successfully completed an access agreement. As a result these institutions are forecast to deliver in excess of £300 million per year in bursaries to students. I am aware that concerns have been raised about a potential underspend on bursaries in some universities. As I said in the Higher Education debate on 15 March 2007:

‘I have been monitoring that situation very closely. The overall scale of underspend has been exaggerated in some reports. In several universities, including a significant number in the Russell group, the projections are that there will be no underspend at all.

Forecasts of spend inevitably carry with them some uncertainty, especially in the first year of an entirely new bursary scheme, and some universities set a high figure for reasons of prudent financial management. I am not in the business of unfairly or unjustly criticising people. OFFA will monitor expenditure and performance annually, and we will have a full picture of year 1 after the relevant monitoring information has been collected this summer.

At the same time, universities should be doing all they can to ensure that students get the support to which they are entitled. In recent weeks, several vice-chancellors have explicitly said to me that they intend to invest any underspend in their original bursary estimates on other measures to improve social inclusion. One of them told me:

“The money for bursaries is ‘budgeted out’. If it cannot be spent on bursaries, then it will go to support other widening participation projects.”

That is heartening. I would urge all universities forecasting a genuine underspend on bursaries to take that approach.’— [Official Report, 15 March 2007; Vol. 458, c.494.]