How ‘outdated’ bursaries are leading to funding shortfalls

29th April 2016 at 00:00
Students are missing out under an ‘overstretched and underfunded’ system, claims NUS students’ union

Increasing bursary rates alone will not stop other learners missing out and colleges raiding other budgets to make up the shortfall, the NUS students’ union has warned.

NUS Scotland also said that the problem strengthened the case for wider reform of the

bursary system in the further education sector.

The comments came after the Scottish Funding Council announced earlier this month that student support rates would be increased for 2016-17 and variance removed, which will mean that students receive 100 per cent of their assessed award.

The move was important for those who received a bursary, said NUS Scotland president Vonnie Sandlan, and while the reforms should be welcomed, FE student support remained an “outdated, discretionary system”.

“Increasing the rates for those students lucky enough to receive a bursary is great news for those students, it doesn’t fix those bigger problems – students who find themselves getting nothing, because the budget has already run out, or colleges having to raid other budgets to make up the shortfall.

Earlier this year, figures obtained by NUS Scotland showed that two-thirds of Scottish colleges had committed at least 100 per cent of their FE bursary budget for this academic year by last December.

According to the data, the vast majority of these made up for the shortfall by using core college funding, while 43 per cent used money from their discretionary budget, which is meant to provide immediate financial assistance for students.

This came after figures from the SFC revealed in January that there had been a £2.4 million shortfall in term-time bursary funds across Scottish colleges.

Ms Sandlan told TESS it was obvious that funds were not keeping up with demand, and bursary budgets remained “overstretched and underfunded”. Ahead of next week’s elections, she called on all parties to commit to improved bursary support for FE students.

Colleges Scotland chief executive Shona Struthers agreed that the system needed reform: “Colleges want to see a system that provides students with adequate financial support as well as reasonable certainty on the support they are likely to receive for the duration of their study.”

She explained the root cause of the funding issues surrounding student support was the approach of setting a fixed amount of resource for student support funding, irrespective of what is needed. “This has led to colleges needing to make decisions, within the guidelines provided by the Scottish Funding Council, to manage the resource most effectively.”

Even playing field

Colleges Scotland supported the implementation of a standard and fair system, as well as exploring the feasibility and impacts of introducing an entitlement based system, she said.

Institutions across Scotland stressed that they endeavoured to pay support to all eligible students. A spokesman for Fife College said: “We have always paid all students who qualify for a bursary on a consistent basis; we don’t stop paying when the bursary allocation is exhausted. If this is the case, historically, the college has found any additional requirement from its own resources; this is money that had to be found from other budgets.”

Similarly, a spokesman for West College Scotland added: “As with all colleges, there have been challenges around the distribution of bursary payments and the sector as a whole has been in discussions with SFC about these matters. The college has been advised that bursary rates for 2016-17 are to be increased in line with living costs and awaits confirmation of overall levels of funding for next year.”

An SFC spokesperson said: “Thanks to a new method of distributing funding, we have improved our ability to get student support funding to where it is needed at the start of the year. Because student profiles at individual colleges can be highly unpredictable, we also look at how needs change during the academic year and redistribute funding accordingly.

“We are continuing to work with colleges and student groups to make improvements to how we estimate need and allocate funding within the student support system.”

In their manifestos, both the SNP and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to improve bursary support (see page 18-20).

‘Removing funding uncertainty would be very welcome’

Ray Mudie, vice-principal for planning and learner services at Dundee and Angus College, welcomed the increase in student bursary rates for session 2016-17.

However, he said that unless the college’s student support funding allocation from the SFC was increased in line with the rates increase, “then we may have difficulty in finding the funds to provide the required financial support to all our eligible students.”

He stressed that the college made up any shortfall in student support funding from college operational funds. “So far, we have been able provide financial support, in full, for all eligible students without any adverse effects on other college budgets, but there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case.”

Mr Mudie said that the most frequent reason students gave for dropping out of their courses was financial difficulties. “Removing any uncertainty of providing funding support for our students would be very welcome.”

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