Investigation: Bursaries and Hardship Grants

A C+ investigation into hardship funds and the availability of bursaries has discovered that the assistance provided to student in Oxford varies extensively between colleges, although each does stress that the University’s Access to Learning Fund ought to be the first port of call for financially struggling students.

In Freedom of Information requests submitted by C+, colleges were asked whether or not they had a specific budget for hardship assistance, and if they did so, to reveal the size of said budget. Colleges who responded saying that they had budgets to cover student hardship needs included Brasenose, who budget £10,000, St. Edmund Hall, who budget £15,000, and St. Hilda’s, who budget £14,000. However the two colleges which declared the biggest budgets for this purpose were Oriel and Exeter, with £54,000 and £44,150 respectively.

Other colleges were more vague in disclosing the money available to struggling students. Somerville stated that they set aside £229,000 annually for ”undergraduate support”, and £196,000 to assist graduates, with 30% of students receiving some form of bursary and each application at Somerville being individually assessed on its own merits, based solely on hardship and financial circumstance.

Many colleges, such as Jesus, Merton, Worcester and St. John’s, offer hardship grants to those in need, but do not have a defined hardship budget.
If there are differences in hardship budgets there are also differences between colleges in the number of people applying for hardship grants. Despite having the highest food and accommodation costs, only two students at Pembroke received hardship grants while for the last two academic years, four students at Brasenose applied for college help.

All colleges contribute to the Oxford Opportunity Bursaries to some degree. At Jesus, £40,000 is automatically applied for qualifying recipients.

The criteria for these bursaries is decided by the College themselves. Most take the same line as the central University Hardship Committee does, evaluating need using the government scale. Colleges such as Brasenose, Teddy Hall, St Hugh’s, Jesus, and Worcester, however, stress that each application is considered individually. At Wolfson, wider parameters are set out, including how the student had planned to fund their course, what changed about that funding, and whether the student is supporting a partner or children.

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However, the Merton application requires both setting out financial situation, and estimating anticipated income and expenditure. Indeed, Pembroke only offers support for those who cannot apply for University funds, although the information taken into account is similar, based on government living cost guidelines.

Students at some colleges can also apply for one-off bursaries for unforeseen hardship. Oriel cites loss of a parent’s job or illness as common examples of such unforeseen circumstances.

The number of people who actually apply to access these funds also appears to differ massively college-to-college. For example, at Brasenose, only 11 hardship grants have been awarded over the past three years, whereas in 2012-2013 alone 24 students applied for assistance at Merton, and received a total of £26,616 between them.

The average amount of money granted to students varied too, with colleges like Jesus tending to award students in need between £250 and £500, whilst at St John’s the average funding received was £1,697.

The University’s Access to Learning Fund which is funded by central government can offer a maximum award of £2,500, although the University website states, “Where funding remains available this could be increased in Trinity Term.”

The fund also comes with the caveat that, “Undergraduates may only be given an award from the Access to Learning Fund to support them for the costs incurred during the academic year. No assistance can be given for the Long Vacation.”

A spokesperson for Oxford University told C+, “Last year we spent more than £7 million on the most generous package of financial support for low-income students of any UK university so that financial background is not an obstacle – real or perceived – to studying at Oxford.”