Rise and demise of the National Scholarship Programme

28 October 2014

The increase of tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012 was accompanied by a major change to the support for disadvantaged students. Universities were required to provide details of their proposed financial support schemes and access programmes before they were allowed to charge higher fees, and the government introduced a National Scholarship Programme (NSP), designed to offer additional financial support to students via their universities. 

As part of a wider project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has published an in-depth analysis of the financial support that universities have been offering their students since 2012, what role the NSP played in this provision and what the likely consequences are now that the government has announced that the NSP will, from 2015, no longer provide support for undergraduate students.

Key observations
  • Overall, students starting university in 2014 will receive on average £635 per year in financial support from universities. Among 2014 entrants with household incomes below £25,000, the average financial support is estimated to be £1,466 per year. This is similar to the level for the 2012 cohort and is lower than that for the 2013 cohort.
  • Students with higher prior attainment tend to receive more financial support. Most academic scholarships set the eligibility threshold at ABB. This choice seems to be driven by the high grade policy in student number control (SNC). When the exemption threshold for SNC was lowered from AAB to ABB in 2013, 18 out of the 23 universities that had AAB scholarships in 2012 reduced the eligibility threshold to ABB.
  • Research-intensive (such as Russell Group) universities tend to have more generous financial support schemes than the less research-intensive ones (such as Million+ universities). Government contribution to the National Scholarship Programme (NSP) and the obligatory match funding by universities constitute a small part of total student financial support among the former, but are a very large proportion for the latter. As the NSP is to be abolished for undergraduates from 2015, it is highly likely that the amount of direct financial support available to poor students at less research-intensive universities will fall.
  • Early indications from 2015/16 Office for Fair Access (OFFA) agreements suggest that highly-selective universities are planning to redirect support towards outreach activities whilst universities with more diverse intakes are planning to redirect money towards student engagement and retention. This may mean that disadvantaged students are worse off in the short run. However, the overall impact of these changes will depend on whether focusing on outreach activities and/or engagement activities once in university is more effective at improving access and retention for disadvantaged students in the long run.

For the full analysis, read the IFS Observation and Briefing paper