Financial support for students
Please note, this is guidance for universities and colleges. Our advice for students looking for financial support is on a separate page.
OFFA’s position on financial support in access agreements
OFFA takes an evidence-led approach in all our policies. Our research into financial support could not find evidence that institutional bursary schemes in operation between 2006-07 and 2010-11 had an observable effect on either choices between institutions or the continuation rates of young full-time first degree students (for further details see OFFA publication 2010/06, Have bursaries influenced choices between universities? and OFFA publication 2014/03, Do bursaries have an effect on retention rates?). Consequently, while we expect institutions to honour existing commitments to financial support, we encourage a focus on long-term outreach work.
However, some institutions tell us that bursaries do aid retention at their particular institution. To support institutions in providing evidence of this, we have recently published research into the evaluation of financial support which provides a toolkit institutions can use to evaluate their financial support provision.
Taking an evidence-led approach in your access agreement
You must have evaluation programmes in place to capture how your financial support is helping you achieve your aims. Use of the toolkit we have developed is optional, however our expectation is that alternative ways of evaluating financial support will be equally robust.
If you have your own evidence on the impact of financial support, you should use it when making decisions on your support packages and include details of this in your access agreement. You should provide evidence to explain how your investment in financial support will help to improve access, student success and/or progression of under-represented and disadvantaged groups.
Where you do not have evidence to support your investment in financial support, you should consider whether this expenditure could be more effectively invested in activities to support access, student success and progression.
Designing your financial support packages
Where you choose to offer financial support, it’s important to ensure that it provides the greatest benefit to your students. In order to determine whether your financial support schemes are fit for purpose, we strongly encourage you to consult your students.
If you are able to assess which types of financial support your students prefer when given a choice, we would be pleased to see you reflect this preference in the design of your financial support.
Financial support must be tightly targeted at the most disadvantaged students. Only financial support directed at under-represented and disadvantaged students will be counted towards your access agreement total investment. If you are unsure whether a target group is countable, please ask us. You are, of course, free to use your own resources to support other students as you see fit (for example, to recognise outstanding academic, sporting or musical achievement).
Considering students who receive social security benefits
If students are on social security benefits such as housing benefit, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will count an institutional bursary as income when calculating those benefits. This may result in the student’s benefits being cut. To reduce the risk of that happening, the following conditions must be met:
- the student in question receives the income-assessed Special Support Grant. This is designed specifically for full-time students eligible for DWP benefits
- the bursary is for course-related costs such as books and other materials, course-related travel etc. Students must have a written statement to this effect in order to qualify for the disregard. The disregard will not apply to any part of a bursary which is for living costs.
We would therefore strongly encourage you to make every effort to describe your bursary in terms that enable the DWP to disregard it as income – so enabling students on benefits to receive the full value of your support as it is intended.
Changing financial support/fee discounts during the application cycle
Ultimately, it is up to institutions to decide whether they wish to discount their fees or increase their financial support late in the application cycle as a way of filling undersubscribed courses (for example during Clearing). However, we expect you to consider the potential impact carefully.
In particular, bear in mind that discounting late in the application cycle is unfair to applicants who chose not to apply to your institution because of the fee and support package you advertised earlier. There is also a risk that late fee discounts may encourage applicants in future cycles to apply late in the hope of paying reduced fees. This would reduce their chances of being admitted to their preferred course, or even at all. We are concerned that such risks are more likely to be taken by applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Therefore, in the interest of fairness, if you decide to offer a late fee discount or increase the financial support for a course, we would expect you to offer the same improved financial package to all eligible applicants, including those who have already accepted an offer from you, not just those who apply late.
Predicting the cost of financial support
If you have data on the household income of your students you can use this to predict your likely level of total investment in financial support.
If you do not have such data, the Student Loans Company (SLC) can provide you with data showing the proportions of your students that fall into different household income bands. This will allow you to estimate how much you will spend on financial support for lower income students. We also hold limited SLC data on students by income bands by institution so you could contact us to see if the data we hold is fit for your purpose.
Financial support for students with special circumstances
Continuing students must continue to receive the institutional financial support that was advertised to them when they applied, subject to any inflationary increases or decisions to increase the support offered. You may not reduce the package for any continuing student as this would be in breach of your access agreement.
Students who owe debt to the institution
If a student is indebted to your institution, e.g. through unpaid accommodation costs or library fees, we would consider it reasonable for you to offset their bursary against this debt, if you wish to do so.
It is for individual institutions to devise their own rules regarding the administration of financial support. However:
- You should make your offsetting policy clear in the rules of your financial support scheme.
- For students who started their courses before September 2012, only financial support above the minimum bursary should be considered for offsetting.
- Where you offer a bursary for a specific purpose, such as covering the cost of tuition fees, it is not good practice to offset this against a debt incurred in a different area, e.g. accommodation costs.
Students who defer entry
If you change your support package from one year to another, there will be a different support package in place when deferred students start their studies than was available when they applied. It is for you to decide which package to give them: the one offered in their year of entry or in their year of application.
You should base your decision on reasonableness, timing and the clarity of information you have given to deferred students, particularly if your financial support has decreased.
You will need to make sure that:
- you provide clear and accessible information on what financial support package deferred students can expect, preferably directly to the students concerned
- this information makes it clear to students that your financial support package is linked either to their year of entry or their year of application (whichever you decide)
- if, when you offer a deferred student a place, you have not yet finalised the financial support package that will apply to their year of entry, you give them full details as soon as the package has been finalised.
Please be aware that if a deferred student decides to challenge you on the level of financial support you are offering and you cannot resolve the matter to their satisfaction, they may take the matter to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.
We think it is reasonable to change the financial support you offer to deferred students provided that:
- you alerted deferred students to any negative changes within a timetable that would have reasonably allowed them to apply elsewhere and/or
- there were caveats in your original offer that your financial support might change, or was not finalised.
However, we do not think it would be reasonable to change your financial support offer if such caveats existed only in the small print. Nor do we think institutions should expect applicants to be unreasonably proactive in finding out about changes to their financial support entitlement.
We will be happy to discuss the reasonableness of your draft policies (contact your institution’s key policy adviser). We would also encourage you to test your position with your student union before deciding which financial support package your deferred students are eligible to receive.
Courses provided under NHS contracts are funded by the NHS and therefore these courses, and the students on them, should not be included in your access agreement. These include nursing, midwifery, allied health professions and medicine (year 5 onwards). Information about financial support available to these students from the NHS
Teacher training students
Trainees on undergraduate initial teacher training (ITT) courses at higher education institutions (HEIs) will be covered under the access agreement for their year of entry.
Following a merger, the newly formed institution must submit a new access agreement to us regardless of whether one or both of the individual institutions previously had an approved agreement.
In all cases, continuing students must receive support that is at least equal to the support they received at their original institution. Also, if a merger takes place during the application cycle, prospective students must receive support at least equal to the support available at the time they accepted their offer.
Franchise and validation arrangements can change quite frequently. Students who have started a course that is franchised to a new institution, or whose validating institution changes during their studies, should remain on a financial support package equal in value to, or greater than, the package advertised when they originally applied for the course.
Students who live outside England
It is for you to decide whether you award bursaries and scholarships to EU students. Your calculations in respect of financial support spend will therefore include or exclude EU students according to your financial support rules.
Students from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland
It is up to you to decide whether these students are eligible for any financial support your institution offers. However, we strongly recommend that cross-border students receive a fair level of support, in line with England-domiciled students.
Where the state support provided for students studying in England from other UK domiciles is higher than support for England domiciled students, we feel that it is reasonable for institutions to take this into account and apply separate financial support criteria for such students for means-tested awards. Depending on the level of state support, this could result in students from other UK domiciles being entitled to less, or even no, financial support from their university.
The payment dates of bursaries and scholarships are for you to determine. We recognise that different institutions may want to award bursaries at different times – some choose to award bursaries at the start of the academic year to help students with their set-up costs, others wait until they have received payment from the Student Loans Company to cover students’ tuition fees, others pay at the end of the year and link to completion.
We are happy for institutions to delay payment of bursaries and scholarships into the second term or later, particularly in view of the fact that many institutions feel this gives students an injection of cash at a time when it is most beneficial.
However, we expect you to make clear, in your access agreement and the literature you send to students, your timetable for paying financial support.
If, at any point, you decide to change the payment dates of your financial support, you will of course need to manage the expectations of prospective students by flagging up changes to previously advertised payment dates – for example on websites and in any correspondence with applicants such as welcome packs.
Students may want to claim financial support retrospectively, sometimes even after they have left an institution. It is for individual institutions to devise their own rules regarding the administration of financial support, including payment dates and any cut-off dates by which students need to apply, or consent to share financial information, to be eligible for a bursary.
If you have underspent against your access agreement budgets or have a take-up issue, we strongly encourage you to take a favourable view of any late financial support claimants up to the end of the academic year.
We think your liability to pay the mandatory minimum bursary should continue at least up to the end of the academic year, regardless of any earlier cut-off dates you may have set for financial support payments above the minimum bursary.
The best way to minimise retrospective claims is to make sure that students know exactly when and how to apply for financial support. This means making sure that your rules are reasonable and that your information is clear and well publicised to students as early as possible.
We also recommend that you are flexible where a student can demonstrate exceptional circumstances for not complying with your requirements.
Monitoring and evaluation
It’s important that you monitor and evaluate, at an institutional level, the impact of your financial support arrangements on access, student success and progression, particularly whether fee waivers and maintenance support have a different impact. You are required to:
- monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of any financial support you offer
- monitor the impact of any reductions in financial support.
OFFA has recently published research into the evaluation of financial support which provides a toolkit you can use to evaluate your financial support provision, including a statistical model, and survey and interview questions.
How to tell us about your financial support in your access agreement
You should record the amount you’ll invest in financial support in your resource plan, splitting your expenditure into the following types of support:
- hardship funds: funding offered or applied for by students in financial difficulties.
- student choice: students can choose to receive their student support in the form of a bursary, fee waiver or other in-kind award (or any combination of these)
- fee waivers: includes fee reductions, free or discounted foundation years
- bursaries, scholarships and ‘in-kind’ support.
Related guidance and resources