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Proposal for a Cambridge bursaries scheme: Notice

24 November 2003

In their response to the White Paper, 'The Future of Higher Education', published in January 2003, the Council expressed their support for the Government's ambition to broaden access to Higher Education and reaffirmed the University's commitment to 'seeking and admitting undergraduate and graduate students of the highest potential irrespective of race or nationality or financial or social circumstances' (Reporter, 2002-03, p. 843). The Council also welcomed the Government's recognition that universities are suffering from serious underfunding and that this needed to be tackled decisively and quickly if the quality of Higher Education were to be maintained.

In this Notice, the Council set out information for the benefit of the members of the University about a scheme of bursaries for UK undergraduates and about their view of the Government's proposals for revised fee arrangements for UK undergraduates. The Council's proposals for a bursaries scheme have the broad support of the Colleges Committee.

The proposed Cambridge bursaries scheme

In the White Paper, the Government announced that they intended to meet, in part, the financing shortfall for Higher Education by introducing arrangements whereby UK universities would be able to charge UK and EU undergraduates a tuition fee of up to £3,000 a year. Students would be able to fund all or part of these fees up front if they so wished but for most it was expected that they would be financed by Government payments, repayable by the student on an income contingent basis after graduation. The Government has given little detail of the way in which approvals for higher fees would be granted. It is against this background that the Council have considered the future of bursaries.

There has been a generous bursary scheme for UK undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds since 1990 operated by the Isaac Newton Trust with contributions from external sponsors and from the Colleges. Last year bursaries up to £1,000 a year were offered at a total cost of about £1.5m. Following a detailed review undertaken jointly with representatives of the Colleges, CUSU, and the Isaac Newton Trust, the Council have now agreed to support a revised and extended bursary scheme that would operate if higher fees, as proposed by Government, were to be introduced.

The new bursary scheme would be based on the following principles:

(i) to be a single scheme from the point of view of the student;
(ii) to maintain a strong link between the College and the student;
(iii) to maintain a level playing field between the Colleges so that no student is disadvantaged by membership of one College versus another;
(iv) to be straightforward and simple to administer;
(v) to give straightforward information to prospective applicants on the levels of financial support they would receive so that they are not deterred from applying because of lack of awareness of the bursaries available to them.

Precise details cannot be agreed and put in place until the Government has announced and secured parliamentary approval for its proposals for fees and student financial support. The Council assume that these proposals will be published early in the new parliamentary session which begins in late November and that the parliamentary timetable is likely to be completed during the course of the current academical year. Based on the arrangements put forward in the White Paper, the new Cambridge bursaries scheme is planned to provide a bursary of £4,000 a year in addition to the proposed Government grant of £1,000 a year, making a total of £5,000 a year available for the poorest students. It is likely that the Higher Education Bill will provide for the first £1,125 of fees to be waived for the poorest students. This support would be set against the total cost of a Cambridge undergraduate education of approximately £8,000 to £9,000 a year (i.e. £3,000 for fees and £5,000 to £6,000 for living expenses). The scheme would be on a sliding scale of support so that students from less poor but still relatively modest income backgrounds would also be eligible for support. These proposals represent a significantly higher proportion of the total costs of a Cambridge education than the current bursary scheme and reflect the Council's overriding objective to ensure that no applicant is in future deterred by potential costs or future debt. The remaining student costs that are not covered by Cambridge's own financial support would be financed either by parental contributions or by the Government's proposals for a new loan scheme whose repayments are contingent on a graduate's future earnings.

The total cost of a scheme on this scale is expected to be in the region of £8m a year to be met jointly by the Colleges and the University in proportions yet to be agreed. The Colleges and the Council have however agreed that fund-raising to support an endowment for this purpose should proceed as a matter of high priority. This will form one of the major goals for the proposed 800th Anniversary Fund-Raising Campaign.

The Council are strongly of the view that the Cambridge bursaries scheme needs to be designed to meet the needs of our students, the particular costs that they face, and to reflect the University's Collegiate traditions.

The financial case for additional sources of income

The Council are clear that Cambridge needs new sources of income if it is to maintain its position in the first rank of universities worldwide. Such sources of income need to be secure for the long term and need to be free of constraint on how they are spent. Only then will Cambridge have the resources and the freedoms that it needs to make long-term investment decisions that will ensure that it remains world class in both teaching and research.

During the past ten years the funds provided by central government to support undergraduate teaching have failed these tests. Over this period they have fallen by approximately 40% in real terms and the degree of Government control has increased. At the same time the infrastructure costs of teaching (e.g. computing facilities, library provision) have risen. The University and the Colleges have, with very considerable effort, maintained the range and quality of teaching: no major subject areas have been discontinued; the supervision system remains in place; and in science subjects practical experimental work continues to form a major element of all courses.

However, it is clear to the Council that the maintenance of this quality of teaching cannot now continue without additional resources. Additional HEFCE grant for teaching appears to be ruled out. The University is facing financial deficits as a consequence of maintaining teaching quality in the face of falling income. The Colleges are also suffering from a continuing reduction in real terms in their fee income. Financial modelling suggests that teaching in the University (not including the Colleges) is underfunded by some £24m a year and is being subsidized by resources which need to be used to support other aspects of the University's mission. Second, salaries have been eroded by comparison with the business and professional sectors during the past decade whilst the cost of living in Cambridge has increased faster than national averages. The ability of the University and the Colleges to recruit and retain staff at all levels is increasingly under threat.

Cambridge faces difficult choices. In the absence of additional income salaries will be eroded further and teaching methods will be forced to change: teaching through personal interaction of teachers and students may not be sustainable; the 'virtual laboratory' may replace the real one; and the linkage of research and scholarship with teaching would be lost. Cambridge's distinctiveness and its distinction would inevitably be eroded.

The alternative to increased Government subvention, which is likely to lead to further regulation and increased dependency, is a combination of philanthropic fund-raising and fee income. The University and the Colleges are committed to maximize fundraising through the 800th Anniversary Campaign. But this cannot on its own solve the problem of underfunding. Cambridge therefore needs to consider the option of increasing fee income. This could be by increasing substantially the admission of overseas undergraduate students relative to Home/EU undergraduate students but this would deprive many very able UK students of the opportunity of a Cambridge education. The only remaining option available to the University is the one proposed in the White Paper - namely a significant increase in the fees paid by Home/EU undergraduate students. The Council therefore have concluded that in principle this is likely to be their recommended course of action, when combined with the bursary principles and framework that have been described in the first part of this Notice. A definitive recommendation to the Regent House will be made when the parliamentary process is further advanced.

Any change in the present fee arrangements will require approval by Grace. Depending on progress on the Government's legislation the Council currently expect to publish a Report during Lent Term 2004.


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Cambridge University Reporter, 26 November 2003
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