Figures published today by the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) in their annual report have revealed inconsistencies between older, more selective universities and more recently established institutions in their spending of additional income from top-up fees.
The report, which focuses on levels of participation and recruitment of disadvantaged students by universities nationwide in 2008/9, has revealed that 15 of the countries richest universities, including the University of York, spend less than 20 per cent of the additional income they receive from top up fees on providing bursaries and scholarships for disadvantaged students.
Adversely, newer institutions, such as Leeds Metropolitan and Oxford Brookes, have been show to spend over 25 per cent of these additional funds in financially assisting students from underprivileged backgrounds, despite having a smaller overall budget.
Students have responded with concern to the findings of the report. Bethany Picken, a second-year history student, commented: “It seems a pretty unfair system if the richest universities are allowed to get away with spending so little on helping out the poorer students. It’s just another example of those in charge caring more about saving money than making our university fairer and more diverse.”
The Russell and 1994 Groups’ average of spending on recruitment, outreach and bursaries for disadvantaged students fell lower than the 2008/9 targets set individually by the University of York in an access agreement drawn up with OFFA in 2004. In its targets, the University aimed to spend a total of £2,189,481, just over 21 per cent, of the predicted total extra income of £10,419,840 gained from top-up fees on ‘increasing access’ measures. However, the data reveals that in actuality, while York spent £2,375,000 on bursaries and scholarships in 2008/9 alone, over £350,000 more than their original aim, this still only accounted for 19.2% of the additional income from top-up fees, lower than their overall target for the year and a 0.3% drop from the previous year.
It also highlighted that despite some progress, York still spends considerably less than peer institutions on bursaries and scholarships for disadvantaged students, with Durham spending £3,634,000 in the last year, Warwick spending £4,189,000 and Manchester spending a considerable £9,287,000.
NUS President, Aaron Porter, outwardly criticised the report findings, stating: “The regulation that surrounds the charging of top up fees is farcical and has allowed greedy university heads with the worst record on access to ask for huge student contributions who then spend less on outreach than those with a better record at getting poorer students onto their courses. Vice-Chancellors and OFFA should be calling for a better system, not patting themselves on the back.”
He continued: “The iniquities in the system reinforce our case for money for bursaries and scholarships to follow the students with the greatest need, and bursary help to be based on student need not on the institution.”
Concern has been raised that the report data also indicates an increasing inequality between more financially secure students, and those from a lower socio-economic background, in perceived accessibility towards attending a more selective university from the prestigious Russell or 1994 Groups.
The OFFA report particularly criticised the slow progress made by the ‘top’ universities in recruiting the poorest students, with an average of only 19 per cent of students attending a Russell or 1994 Group university in receipt of full state support, in contrast to 37 per cent of students as Million+ universities. Indeed, at the University of York the number is even lower, with only 16.9% of students qualifying for full financial state assistance.
This was attributed to the fact that both the Russell Group and 1994 Group spend on average only 2.36 per cent of income from top-up fees on outreach programmes targeting disadvantaged schools and students, whereas universities in the more newly formed Million+ Group spend an average of more than 3.12 per cent of these funds on outreach projects.
A second-year student, who preferred to remain unnamed, stated: “I went to a state school in what they would probably call a disadvantaged area and it’s definitely true that there was this view that mainly richer people went to the top universities. York definitely needs to work on breaking down this perception and just make themselves seem more financially helpful to those applying who are less well off – maybe advertise their bursaries and scholarships a bit more.”