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Bursaries and fee waivers: the facts

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The issue:

Fee waivers do not actually give the student anything at all unless a student goes on to be successful in a well-paid job, by which time they will not need a retrospective discount on their higher education degree. Students need money when they are studying, they don’t need a ‘discount’ that they will likely never see the benefit of.

The £7,500 threshold to get into the auction for the 20,000 margin places, created by taking 8% off institutions (excluding AAB students) has meant that institutions have sacrificed access spend on bursaries so they can offer partial fee waivers. Owing to the repayment mechanism of loans (9% over £21,000 for 30 years), only high earners will ever earn enough to realise that fee waiver - by government’s own figures, 40% will never repay enough for a small fee waiver to become a reality. The government has created a system to force institutions to lower their fees (because they can’t afford not to) by conning students into thinking they’re getting
money off fees, when in reality they're not – and they lose out on the upfront cash in hand support that bursaries would provide.


The impact we want:
The way that government proposes to give financial support to the most disadvantaged people is a mess. Fee waivers are a con as they yield virtually no benefit whatsoever to the majority of students. We want fee waivers to be banned as a feature of the Access Agreement.

Widening participation is meaningless unless the support is available to make higher education affordable at the point of study, and we want students to benefit from the right support, reducing drop-outs.


The outcome we want:
We need MPs to put as much scrutiny as possible on David Willetts, to force him to come clean that he’s conning students, and ultimately to take fee waivers out of the calculation of 'average fee level' when calculating the £7,500 threshold for the auction.
We want fee waivers to be banned unless they represent at least 50% of the entire fee (the only point at which they start to possibly benefit students in the future), and even then we want assurances that real cash-in-hand support will be available to all students that need it, to a level capable of sustaining them.


Our targets:

  • Vice-Chancellors who share our views about the pounds in students’ pockets can be strong public allies if they are willing to speak out about this.
  • Both the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access have taken no view on the suitability or otherwise of fee waivers. Presenting these with evidence may encourage them to take a line on bursaries over fee waivers.
  • MPs can ask BIS and its Ministers to report on the effectiveness or otherwise of fee waivers or bursaries. Too often the justification for fee waivers is that bursaries have shown no impact on recruitment. We need to make it clear that our point is about retention. MPs will care about the welfare of their constituents and support us in making this case to government.

Our campaign actions:

  • What is your VC/ Principal’s view on bursaries and fee waivers? If they haven’t already taken a public view, persuade them to do so. If they take the same position as you, stand on a joint platform – make a joint statement and promote it – and make sure your MP knows about it.
  • Give your MP some key facts about how this policy is impacting on your institution, e.g. how much the institution has reduced its bursary budget by, and gather feedback from current students receiving bursaries about whether they think they would be more likely to drop out had they only been granted a fee waiver rather than a bursary. You can then ask your MP to take action by:
  •            Writing to the Minister, David Willetts
  •            asking parliamentray questions on the issue, for example:

“Does the Minister believe it is fair that [your institution] was forced to reduce the amount of bursaries offered to new students by £[XX]m and instead now offer £[XX]m of partial fee waivers, when he knows that these fee waivers mean nothing unless the graduate becomes a high earner, whereas bursaries offer cash to those most in need?”

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