Universities giving more in bursaries to poor students
Universities in England have slightly raised the proportion of their income they give as bursaries to poorer students, the funding watchdog says.
Last year they gave 25.8% of income from increased tuition fees, a rise of 0.8%, the Office for Fair Access said.
Universities have to show they are acting to widen access if they want to set fees higher than the basic level.
The student union said the system was farcical, with many older universities less generous than newer ones.
Offa was set up to protect access to university for poorer students when tuition fees were increased four years ago.
Its figures for 2008-09 showed that the total amount universities spent on bursaries had risen to £344m, up from £219m the previous year.
This came alongside an increase in the income universities raised from tuition fees set above the basic minimum.
In 2008-9, institutions were allowed to charge up to £3,145. But if they charged the maximum fee, they had to give a statutory bursary of at least £310 to each student who qualified for a means-tested maintenance grant.
Take-up of bursaries among the poorest students rose to 96%, up from 92% the previous year, Offa's figures showed.
But the average among per applicant was down to £942, compared with £1,019 in 2007-8.
Offa's Director, Sir Martin Harris, said the continued expenditure showed universities and colleges "strong ongoing commitment to widening access".
But he said they must maintain bursary spending levels: "With applications at a record high... we must continue to make sure that disadvantaged students... are not disproportionately among those affected by this increased competition for places."
Universities minister David Willetts said he was "extremely pleased" with the increased take-up rate of bursaries.
There have been concerns that students were missing out on funding support because of lack of information and a confusing application process.
But Mr Willetts warned that universities and politicians "must not be complacent".
The Russell Group of research-intensive universities said it had "greatly exceeded Offa's requirements yet again".
It said that nearly a third of students at its universities received a bursary or scholarship, including 31,000 of the very poorest students who received nearly five times the minimum bursary.
But the National Union of Students said 15 of the richest universities - from the Russell Group and 1994 group - gave less than 20% of their additional fees income on bursaries.
In comparison, 18 newer universities offered more than 25% in cash to disadvantaged students.
NUS President Aaron Porter said the system was "farcical" and allowed "greedy university heads" with poor records on access to spend less reaching out to poorer students than those who already attracted more learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"Vice-Chancellors and Offa should be calling for a better system, not patting themselves on the back," he said.
The University and College Union said it was "ludicrous" that the amount of financial aid students currently receive was "a complete lottery" and that universities with a poor track record of widening participation could spend less on student support.
It called for a national bursary system, to standardise support for poorer students across the country.
The 1994 group said the present scheme was "proving a success" and argued that a national scheme would "effectively be a tax" that distributed income away from the institution to which the student paid fees.