Photo: Marek Allen
Bristol is set to be the least affordable English Russell Group university for new students from low-income backgrounds from 2012, Epigram research has found.
Its current bursary system provides up to £1260 a year for students from the lowest-income families, and helps almost 33% of students meet the cost of studying in Bristol.
But from next year most bursaries are being axed, continuing only for a small number of students from the local area enrolled on the ‘Access toBristol’ scheme.
Despite all other universities in the prestigious Russell Group retaining some form of means-tested cash bursary to supplement maintenance costs, Bristol have replaced their scheme with tuition fee waivers worth up to £5,500.
In a briefing to University Council members on the new access measures, the University states that the purpose of the change is, ‘to send a simple message to students from the lowest income families that they will pay no more in fees than they do now.’
‘Our Student Recruitment team believes the key message that has been heard by prospective students, particularly those from the poorest backgrounds, is about tuition fee debt and our fee waiver packages are intended to address this.’
In the report, the University also cites anecdotal evidence in support of its new system, saying, ‘Feedback from our recent open day is that applicants and parents from low income groups were impressed by our financial support package. The University was also praised in The Sunday Times 2012 University Guide for having, ‘one of the most generous packages of student support’.
However, the value of fee waivers as support for students has been called into question, as they offer no help until long after graduation.
Alex, a 2nd year economics student, told Epigram,
‘I’d find fee waivers completely useless. I’m aware that my student debt is there and rising but it’s not important to me while I’m still studying, I’d much rather have the cash to help me with living which is a far more pressing concern’.
Bristol’s access agreement, already approved by OFFA (the Office for Fair Access), implies that without bursaries, poorer students have to find part-time work in order to meet the basic costs of studying in Bristol. The access agreement in place before the bursary system was cut makes assurances that students eligible for state support will have sufficient funding to cover ‘normal maintenance costs’. However, the access agreement for 2012-13 concludes that, ‘state support… and some part-time working should comfortably ensure that eligible students have sufficient funding at their disposal’ (emphasis ours).
Additionally, in a separate briefing for University Council members, the university explicitly states that one reason for not offering bursaries is because, ‘Students can cover these [maintenance] costs through a combination of national support and a reasonable level of part-time work’.
However, the view that students should need to work in order to afford to live and study in Bristol is not widely shared.
Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West, told Epigram,
‘Students should be able to take part time jobs while at university in order to supplement their income, but it shouldn’t be necessary for them to work in order to meet the basic costs of studying at Bristol. Working for long hours would be to the detriment of study and it would not be fair for students from richer backgrounds to be able to devote all the time that they wish to study and so obtain a better degree result than their poorer compatriots.’
Chris Ruff, VP Activities for the Students’ Union, commented on the impact on the student experience.
‘These bursary cuts are alarming because it will essentially mean that those students that can afford not to work will have a richer university experience, and those that can’t will miss out. Clubs and societies enhance your employability and provide a
n essential respite from your academic work.’
When asked to comment, Lynn Robinson, Deputy Registrar at the University, told us,
‘It is true that fee waivers will not support students while they are at University but our significantly extended hardship funds will. We are looking to re-launch and re-badge these to ensure that no one in need is deterred from applying. We have always included part-time work in our assumptions about student income and we agreed the levels with the Students’ Union at the time of our first Access Agreement.’
It may be that fee waivers will encourage poorer students to apply to Bristol, but it seems certain that those who do will find it more difficult to fund their living and studying under the new arrangements. With little time left to amend their access agreement, it remains to be seen whether the University will take steps to remedy this.