23 October 2023
How and why we're making student finance more transparent
Michael Sanders and Vanessa Hirneis
Armed with better information, students can better make decisions about their future
Making ends meet as a university student is difficult at the best of times, but has grown increasingly difficult in the last couple of years with the return of high levels of inflation causing the cost of living crisis. Last year, the proportion of students considering dropping out of university due to financial distress more than doubled, rising from 3.5% to 8% (although it still lags behind mental health as a reason).
There is of course the student finance system, which provides students with loans to support their expenses while studying – and which is available to any home university student in England. The government’s support is well advertised, and most people will be aware of it, even if the idea of a tens of thousands of pounds of debt might be difficult to wrap your head around.
What is less well known is that most universities also offer income-contingent bursary or grant support, whereby students can receive additional financial support based on their income. In fact, research carried out looking at bursary recipients at two universities found the majority were unaware that their institution even offered bursaries until after they arrived.
This is important, because bursaries vary a lot from institution to institution – both in terms of the amount of money available and who is eligible – with some institutions offering thousands of pounds a year only to those from families with very low incomes, and others offering a more graduated amount, so that even families on median earnings are eligible. Often, the most selective institutions – those which students might expect to be more expensive – offer the more generous financial support.
It’s hardly students’ fault that they’re not aware of all the support they might be eligible for – there is no central repository of this information, and so for every university to which they might apply, they must go hunting for the information.
To help close the information gap, last year we ran a study with more than 400 schools, in partnership with our colleagues at the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), to test the impact of a booklet that drew together publicly available information about bursaries offered by more than 100 institutions, and presented it in an easy-to-access format.
We’re still waiting for the final results of the study, but the qualitative feedback was very positive and so, while we wait, we’ve updated the booklet for a new academic year, and are distributing it in partnership with the Sixth Form Colleges Association. It is our hope that students, armed with better information, can better make decisions about their future that work for them.
Michael Sanders is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Experimental Government Team in the Policy Institute, King’s College London. He is Academic Lead for the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), and Chair of Trustees for the Nightline Association.
Vanessa Hirneis is a Research Associate in the Experimental Government Team at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.