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Universities: Bursaries

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In the light of the recent report by the Office for Fair Access, what steps they will take to encourage a better take-up of bursaries by poorer students, especially at older universities.

My Lords, Martin Harris, the independent director of the Office for Fair Access, has reviewed universities’ performance in paying bursaries in the first year of the new regime. He has found that no university is in breach of its obligations in the access agreement that he approved prior to the setting of fees, but he has written to a number of universities asking them to do more to identify students entitled to a bursary who have not applied. We support this initiative.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and congratulate her on her new position on the government Front Bench. Does she agree that it is unfortunate that some 12,000 students have not claimed bursaries of £300 or more that they are eligible to claim? Does she further agree that one of the reasons for this is the sheer complexity of the system, with each university running a separate scheme? Does she also agree that this is an indication that the scheme run in her own country, Wales, which has a single national bursary scheme, might be preferable to the scheme that we have at the moment in England?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Question today and for giving me the opportunity to highlight this extremely important report and the work that higher education institutes are doing around England to improve the inclusion of poorer students. Yes, we do share Martin Harris’s concern about the 12,000 students who have not received their bursaries. We are concerned that there appears to be a lack of connection in getting information to these students. All they have to do in many cases is to pass on to the institution their permission for their details to be sent on so that they can get these bursaries. An awful lot more can be done; we are certainly not complacent about the system that we have. We have committed ourselves to reviewing the system in time.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the access report showed that some universities have done very well, notably—and I declare an interest—Oxford, but also the LSE, Imperial College London and the University of Sheffield? All of them have 100 per cent uptake from the money that they have allocated for these bursaries—£2 million in the case of Oxford. So it is perfectly possible to be clear and effective and for universities to rely on effective self-help.

My Lords, I support my noble friend’s comments. Yes, we are very encouraged by the steps that many universities are taking. I declare an interest in that I am particularly pleased about the steps that my own college—University College—has taken. Many others, such as Imperial College London, have achieved their expectations in granting bursaries and in the outreach work they are doing to encourage wider participation. In fact, 25 per cent of the additional income from the new fees system has been spent on bursaries.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Minister to her new position. Could she tell the House why the bursary forms are so complicated, which deters students from applying? Could not the bursaries be made easier? The take-up might then be better.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. I do not accept that all the bursary forms are too complicated. I am absolutely certain that, after the first year, there will be improvements year on year in the operation of the system. However, one of the interesting things about the report is that it shows that in institutions where bursaries were rewarded regardless of the application process to all applying students, a number of students still chose not to apply for a bursary and not to accept one. We have to understand much more about why, in a small number of cases, students do not agree to have their personal details handed on to institutions so that they can receive more money. It is not as simple as it sounds.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why, at a time when the university sector as a whole is spending £20 million on outreach work to encourage students from poorer homes to apply to university, applications from the lower socio-economic groups in fact fell last year by almost 1.25 per cent? Can she give any advice to universities to enable them to be more successful this year?

My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with that statistic. I am advised that participation in higher education by students from the lower socio-economic groups is increasing and that the gap is closing between well-off and less well-off students. I would be very happy to talk to the noble Baroness further about that.

We can give institutions an enormous amount of advice on how to improve their outreach. Martin Harris, as I said, has written to a number of institutions to encourage them to manage their processes better and to get more involved in outreach. We are at the beginning of a process, and this year has been a success. The institutions that have perhaps not reached their stated intention on bursary spend might be universities that have not been as good at budgeting as they should have been. An awful lot more will be known in those institutions at the end of the first year and we have high expectations for improvements in those systems in the future.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the questions here is not simply for universities but for schools? The encouragement of aspiration in schools should be a fundamental part of the solution to this problem.

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly. I am pleased that the Government are supporting the Aim Higher initiative which works directly with schools to get children who would not necessarily even think of going to university not only to consider doing so, but to visit universities in order to demystify the whole concept of higher education. This initiative makes higher education seem much more accessible to a large number of children who could, as we all know, benefit greatly from a good higher education.