Tuition fee waiver scheme 'too complex' to help poorest students

Million+ thinktank warns that coalition's university plan risks making bursary and grant system even more complicated

A scheme to waive university fees for poor students is unlikely to help the most deprived, a thinktank warned today.

Last month, the coalition announced that clever students from low-income homes would be eligible for up to two years of free university tuition. The announcement was made days before MPs voted to raise fees from £3,290 a year to up to £9,000. It was perceived to be a concession to wavering Lib Dems.

Under the £150m scheme, students would have their first year of university paid for by the state if they had been eligible for a free school lunch. This would mean their parents' joint annual income was £16,040 or less.

Universities that charge more than £6,000 a year could be forced to pay students' fees for a second year, David Willetts, the universities minister, said. The government believe up to 18,000 students could benefit from the scheme. But Million+, a thinktank and lobby group for modern universities, said the scheme risked "adding another layer of complexity" to the already complicated system of student bursaries and grants.

In a report on the scheme, which is known as the National Scholarship Programme, the thinktank argues that EU legislation would make it impossible for universities and the government to only pay for the tuition fees of UK students. EU students would have to have their fees paid for too, if they were eligible. This would mean the government would have to set up a complex means-testing system for all EU students.

The thinktank said it was unfair to use free school meals as a way of judging whether a student was eligible for the scheme. A quarter of university students are older than 21 and it would be difficult to trace whether they had – or could have been – entitled to a free school meal. Since 1980, only students from low-income families have been entitled to the benefit.

Million+ also argue that it is unfair on disadvantaged students if only teenagers with excellent academic records are allowed free university tuition. Professor Les Ebdon, the thinktank's chair, said it was well known that disadvantaged students had "lower pre-entry qualifications" and some mature students were accepted onto university courses with "fewer formal qualifications".

Ebdon said: "Any attempt to link the National Scholarship Programme with prior attainment will disadvantage many students from poorer backgrounds who will nonetheless go on to do exceptionally well at university."

The thinktank said that if universities had to pay for the tuition of the poorest teenagers, it would disadvantage those institutions that took the highest number of students from low-income families.

"It is already well-known that the complexity of the current bursary and student support system can deter students from non-traditional backgrounds," said Ebdon, who is also vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University.

"The National Scholarship Programme risks adding another layer of complexity, unless it is a national scheme, nationally administered with clear individual benefits identified for eligible students."

Gareth Thomas, Labour's shadow universities minister, said the government's plans had "created confusion, concern and a perverse incentive for universities not to take students from low-income households".


Jessica Shepherd, education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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