Bursary payments for vulnerable students dip to new low

Compliance audits rise as colleges see more challenging ESFA rules

Compliance audits rise as colleges see more challenging ESFA rules

Bursary payments for vulnerable students are falling as the government tightens rules around their use, an FE Week investigation has found. 

Analysis of never-before published Department for Education data on 16-19 bursary payments to “vulnerable” groups show learners received a record low average payment of £877 last year, despite the cost of living crisis

Now in its tenth year, eligible learners could initially claim a maximum of £1,200 to pay for transport and course equipment such as books. 

But from 2019-20, the “tone” in the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s (ESFA) guidance changed to stipulate that colleges should not automatically hand out the full payment and should only claim what students needed. Evidence also had to be provided for the claim. 

Audit guidance says the ESFA will “recover funds” if providers cannot prove students met the eligibility criteria. 

Internal auditors told FE Week they’ve seen an uptick in bursary audits as colleges have recognised the rules have made it a “more challenging area”. 

Defined vulnerable groups

This branch of the 16-19 bursary was introduced in 2013 to support those unlikely to receive assistance from parents or carers, such as young people living away from home, to enable them to continue full or part-time college study. 

Eligible students are those in care, care leavers and young people receiving benefits such as Universal Credit. 

Unlike other bursaries available to FE providers, the vulnerable bursary is not handed out through allocations based on student numbers. 

To apply for a payment, students must submit a claim to the college, which will then assess their eligibility and submit a claim with evidence to the DfE’s Student Bursary Support Service. 

Not enough for travel

The total amount colleges have claimed has been on a gradual decline. 

In 2013-14, £23.6 million was handed out, falling slightly to £21.8 million in 2017-18 and then to £19.3 million last year. 

The average payment for each student has fallen from a high of £1,037 in 2018-19 to £877 in 2022-23. 

Lisa Humphries, the associate principal of students at Chichester College and chair of the National Association for Managers of Student Services, told FE Week the averages were a surprise “because lots of colleges would say that money isn’t enough to support those students needing to travel”.  

ESFA guidance highlights that colleges can use the discretionary 16-19 bursary pot to top up payments to individuals. 

The DfE did not provide a breakdown of the participation of each defined vulnerable group, so FE Week obtained the data through a freedom of information request (see table). 

Comparing the figures with official government data going back to 2019, 67 per cent of the 22,019 over-16s in care in England received a payment in 2022-23. That proportion has stayed the same since 2019, apart from 2020-21 when 69 per cent received a payment, likely due to the pandemic. 

Tone ‘changed’ over the last decade

Humphries said many colleges handed out the full payment of £1,200 in the early years, but the ESFA had become “more rigid” with asking for evidence on how the vulnerable bursary would be spent. 

“That tone changed over the last decade.” 

In 2014-15, the guide directly stated: “[Education Funding Agency] would not usually expect students in the vulnerable groups to be awarded less than £1,200, if they are on a course lasting 30 weeks or more and are participating full-time.” 

The following year, the guidance wording changed to “vulnerable bursary of up to £1,200”. 

Then from 2019-20, the ESFA said students should only receive the amount they needed and not automatically be awarded £1,200. 

Colleges are increasingly under strain to keep an audit trail of each claim and what students will use it for or the ESFA can claw back the funds.  

Auditors told FE Week that when they examined bursary audits, they looked for “evidence to support the payments made, how these are agreed, and we’d be auditing against the ESFA guidance”. 

Humphries said: “For example, I would have to record in my system that if we’ve spent £1,200, £850 was their travel ticket for the year and £350 was their course cost.  

“Whatever it may be, you would have to be specific.” 

Julian Gravatt, the deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, added: “The changes to allocation rules over the past couple of years is a result of colleges now being required to carry out documented assessment of need for each individual, when by definition these young people are the most in need of money to support their continued engagement in education. 

“AoC has challenged this approach and will continue to do so.”

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