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Vice Chancellor urges review of 'unfair' national scholarship programme as new figures reveal university tuition fee levels

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A National Scholarship Programme introduced to help students from low income families afford a university education is “unfair” and will leave many who should qualify for support disappointed, a vice-chancellor warned today.

The warning from Professor David Green, Vice Chancellor of the University of Worcester, comes as the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) publishes figures showing university and college tuition fee levels for 2013/14, and how much of this money institutions plan to spend on bursaries, scholarships, fee waivers, and other measures designed to help widen access to higher education. The OFFA figures reveal that the average fee charged by universities from September 2013 will be over £8,600, while the average amount students will pay after all financial support is taken into account will be £7,985.

Government funding for national scholarships, although rising from £50 million this year to £150 million by 2014, is inadequate to cover the full cost of providing awards to every first-year student who should get one under means testing rules set by the Government, Professor Green said.

Universities taking part in the Programme, most of which are required to match Government funding for scholarships with money from their own coffers, have been left to decide whether to commit further resources to help cash-strapped students.

“Government funding for the National Scholarship Programme is a mere fig leaf that masks the full scale of financial disadvantage that has grown among families as a result of the recession. This means that thousands of new students who qualify to benefit from this scheme will discover that they have missed out,” Professor Green said.

In a bid to help more students from low-income families Worcester -- which the OFFA figures show will have the third lowest fee levels next year among HE institutions in England after fee waivers are counted -- has decided to invest £3 million of its own money to ensure that every new student starting at Worcester in 2013 who qualifies for a National Scholarship will get one.

The decision to offer £3,000 fee waivers to qualifying students next year follows the “shocking” discovery that over 40 per cent of Worcester’s new undergraduates come from households with incomes below £25,000 – the qualifying threshold under the national Programme.

“When we examined how many new students would qualify for a scholarship under the national scheme, we were shocked to discover this had risen to over 40 per cent of our 2011 intake. While the University of Worcester has a strong track record in widening access to higher education, we can only conclude that many more families have been affected by the financial downturn than was expected.”

Due to cuts in Government funding for higher education, Worcester has been restricted to offering 200 scholarships this September. But it has decided to commit additional money to provide a scholarship for every qualifying student from next year.

“So far we have been giving priority for scholarships to those students who are leaving care, or who have refugee status, with any money left over being distributed on a means-tested basis until it runs out.

“But we have become increasingly concerned at how unfair it is on those who narrowly miss out to limit the number of scholarships. Therefore we have decided to make this big commitment, even though money is tight for us as for other universities,” Professor Green said.

Thanks to donations from firms and philanthropists the University is also able to offer £1000 achievement scholarships to all who enter the University with the equivalent of an A and 2Bs at A-level from 2013 onwards. Students studying at the University who achieve high grades in their first and second years can and do go on to be awarded a further scholarship of £1000 in each year on the basis of their performance.