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24th November 2011

Universities offer cash for good grades

Middle-ranking institutions will offer merit-based scholarships to all AAB plus students.

Universities are offering cash incentives to students who achieve high grades in a scheme which critics have warned could have “hidden and unintended” consequences for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Several institutions, including City University London, Surrey, Leicester, and Northumbria, will provide students who have gained at least two As and a B in their A-levels with a grant of up to £3,250 per academic year.

The changes come in the wake of a government reform that allows universities to take unlimited numbers of so-called “AAB plus students”. It has sparked fears among middle-ranking universities which, under the previous system, would have profited from the restrictiveness of higher-ranking institutions by taking on those students who failed to get into their preferred choice.

Since universities that fail to attract the same percentage of AAB plus students as in previous years risk losing funding, applicants with good grades have become a precious commodity, and those institutions in the middle of the league tables are willing to go to some length to attract them.

“[Middle-ranking universities] are vulnerable to losing some of their AAB plus students to more selective, more prestigious, institutions,” said Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

“At the same time they are competing with their peers to hold on to their existing – and to recruit additional – AAB plus students. This is likely to give rise to an arms race of ‘merit-based’ scholarships – if one university offers them others will be obliged to do so.”

Of those universities already providing cash incentives, City University London is offering £3,000 a year to AAB plus students, while Northumbria is offering £1,000 a year. Surrey is offering £2,000 a year for three As, and Leicester is offering the same, as well as departmental scholarships worth £1,250 which will be given to those students who meet specific course requirements.

When the plans were announced this summer, critics warned that the new system would harm the prospects of poorer students. Comparative evidence from the US has shown that merit-based scholarships consistently go to middle and upper-class students, who are least in need of financial assistance.

Julian Skyrme, head of undergraduate recruitment and widening participation at Manchester University, said, “Evidence in the United States suggests that offering financial awards based purely on merit leads to a disproportionate amount of money going to better-off students.”

He said that “some students” will be tempted by the cash offers but that “the evidence to date suggests that students look at finance as one among many other factors alongside, for example, course and institutional reputation, employment prospects, student satisfaction.”

Shadow universities minister, Gareth Thomas, said, “Money which might have been earmarked in the past to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university is instead [being] used to try and help recruit people with very good grades.”

However, a spokesman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills claims that the reforms are simply ensuring that students who achieve the prerequisite grades are able to study at their institution of choice: “We have made sure that under new access rules, more support is going to people from disadvantaged backgrounds and they are treated fairly. Beyond this, universities are free to use their own resources in any way they choose in order to attract new students.”

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