A £50 million government scheme intended to help the poorest and most disadvantaged young people go to university is too complicated and unlikely to be having the intended impact, a study has warned.
It comes as one university vice-chancellor this week branded the current system for administering the scheme as "crazy".
The National Scholarship Programme (NSP) was introduced by the government following the move to triple tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year. The scheme, which replaces an old bursary system, is costing the government £50 million, equally matched by universities.
But the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the scheme was likely to be undermined by levels of “complexity and uncertainty” because universities were administering it in different ways and there was “substantial variation” in the type and amount of financial support on offer.
The report said: “Universities are free to design their own student support packages, with noticeable differences in the scale and complexity across institutions.
“Some schemes are based on parental income, while others take into account neighbourhood disadvantage; others focus on academic ability or are based on a range of characteristics.”
It added that in most universities, prospective students would not know in advance how much total support they would receive.
The study concludes: “In its current form, the NSP thus seems unlikely to encourage participation among students from the poorest backgrounds.”
High-ranked universities tend to offer more generous packages, particularly for poorer students, the IFS said. A student at a leading Russell Group institution with a family income of up to £25,000 could get over £2,900 a year, while those at a newer university, such as those in the University Alliance or Million+ group could get £900 or £700 respectively.
Haroon Chowdry, IFS senior research economist, said: “The introduction of the NSP has led to substantial variation across universities in the generosity and type of financial support available to the poorest students.
“Of particular concern is the fact that it is often very difficult for a student to work out how much total support they might receive before they apply.
“This complexity and lack of transparency raises questions about whether the programme will encourage participation among students from poor families.”
In a separate study, the IFS noted that the gap between the numbers of rich and poor 18 and 19-year-old state school students going to university is narrowing. In 2004/05 there was a 40 percentage point gap and by 2009/10, after fees were raised for the first time to £3,000, this had fallen to 37 percentage points.
The report said this could have been because the free regime, implemented in 2006, was “actually more generous to students from poorer backgrounds and hit richer students relatively harder”.
Martin Freedman, head of pay, conditions and pensions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the reports showed that government policies were “jeopardising young people’s life chances”.
He said the complexity of the NSP “will merely repeat the fiasco of the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, which has led to a significant fall in support for 16 to 19-year-olds from low-income families”.
Mr Freedman added: “The government must stop using a financial stick to beat young people and start helping them to acquire knowledge and skills so they can contribute to our economy and society. Otherwise, young people will face prospects that are as bleak as any time since the end of the war.”
Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, said the current system of administering the NSP was “crazy”. The university currently offers a fees waiver of £3,000 in the first year to 200 students, but an estimated 1,200 qualify on the grounds of low income. “It is November, and we still haven’t heard from Student Finance England exactly how many of our students are eligible,” he said.
The university uses a fees-waiver scheme as it considers this to be the fairest way of administering the scholarships. From next year, every student whose family income is less than £25,000 will receive the scholarship, regardless of government targets, at a cost of up to £3 million to the university.
Prof Green added: “We decided this was the more fair way of ensuring that every student who is eligible benefits from the scheme, and it removes the need to work from the bottom up until the money runs out.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said: “We warned that the NSP would be unfair because universities which are most successful in creating new opportunities for students have to bolster the NSP with their own funds. As a result there is a postcode lottery for students.”
A University Alliance spokesman added: “These figures are not a useful reflection of the support received by students attending our institutions nor the bigger contribution they make to widening access and social mobility. The fact is, Alliance universities have, on average, over twice as many students from lower-income and under-represented groups compared with the rest of the sector. That is the bigger picture that these figures fail to recognise.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “The NSP will double in value next year and help even more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Getting to university depends on ability, not ability to pay – and our reforms have ensured that this is now the case. Applications from students from poorer backgrounds held up last year and the NSP is there to support thousands of those students during their time in higher education.”