By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter
University financial support is being used to "brow beat" applicants who are choosing between courses, say students.
Sam Sturley was offered a £2,500 a year scholarship by Bristol
Scholarships, given to students for academic merit, are being withheld if applicants do not make universities their first choice "firm acceptance".
This can mean annual scholarship payments of £2,500 are not given to students who only accept a place as an "insurance" offer.
The National Union of Students said the practice was unfair to poorer students.
NUS vice-chairman Wes Streeting said: "It is unfortunate that the market in admissions is so competitive that students are essentially being brow-beaten into accepting places by the offer of financial support.
"It ultimately discriminates against poorer students who will feel stuck between a rock and a hard place having to weigh up courses with an eye to the financial incentives on offer.
"But those from wealthier backgrounds will be able to choose whatever courses they want."
Leading institutions, such as Bristol and University College London, are tying scholarship offers to rankings in the application process.
Mr Streeting said these elite universities were "chasing clever kids around the system".
Assistant director at the Office of Fair Access, David Barrett, said all universities had to offer a minimum of £300 a year in bursaries to students from households earning less than £17,910 a year.
This is designed to at least cover the cost of the yearly £3,000 tuition fees when combined with the £2,700 government support package.
But many universities offer much larger amounts to students, either in the form of means-tested bursaries or scholarships which are given on condition of achieving high grades.
"It is not a bad thing that additional money is being offered but it really is decision time for these students," said Mr Barrett.
The issue came to light after state school pupil Sam Sturley, 18, from Marchwood, near Southampton, contacted the BBC News website.
She was offered a Great Western Scholarship worth £2,500 a year to study geology at Bristol University because of her outstanding GCSE results.
She had been planning to accept it when she got an unexpected, but more challenging, offer from Oxford.
"I was thrilled since this would mean I would get approximately equal funding whether I went to Oxford or Bristol, since Oxford offers a generous bursary scheme of up to £4,000 a year depending on household income," she said.
But she soon found she would lose the Bristol scholarship if she risked putting Oxford as her first preference firm acceptance, hoping she made the necessary grades.
After universities have offered applicants places, people with more than one offer have to make a "firm acceptance" for their top preference, plus an "insurance" acceptance.
"I think it is totally unfair since I won that scholarship because of my grades and if I end up going there, what does it matter how I ranked them on a piece of paper, I'll still have to pay for everything for the four years of my course.
"Are they trying to deter the poorer half? Rich students can quite happily put Bristol as their second choice but low income students like me may be deterred by financial worries," she said.
A spokesman for Bristol University said the whole purpose of its scholarships was to encourage academically outstanding individuals to study at Bristol.
He added: "That is why the applicants concerned have to firmly accept the offer of a place.
"The scholarship is an inducement, not a right, and is awarded in addition to any bursary support.
"We are very far from complacent, but we do not feel the need to play 'second fiddle' to any other institution."
He suggested Bristol was "the most popular university in the country" in terms of number of applicants per place.
But others, who are also very over-subscribed, have opted to award scholarships simply on the basis of academic achievement.
Manchester University's Advantage Scholarship offers £5,000 a year to students who get three As at A-level and come from backgrounds with household incomes of less than £17,910.
Its head of widening participation, Julian Skyrme, said many universities quite rightly used scholarship as "magnets to the brightest students".
"At Manchester we have taken the approach that the scholarship is available to students whether they come as a first choice or whether it's an insurance choice."
The scholarships were designed to make Manchester even more attractive to the brightest students, he said.
"But it's also about student support - if they are from a low income bracket the student will need that higher level of support."
Some 213 of these scholarships were handed out last year, although Manchester had only planned to offer 180.
Bristol meanwhile offered 100 Great Western Scholarships, but only awarded 29 because students either did not get the required grades or did not put Bristol first.
Some of your comments:
The Bristol University spokesman's comments about "not needing to play second fiddle to any other institution" smacks of arrogance. Students who are considering offers from other universities have every right to do so.
Stuart Hamilton, Johnstone
Universities have to balance the books and so know how many bursaries they can offer to prospective students. Students who want to tie up bursaries from an insurance (i.e. second) choice university are being extremely selfish by rendering a bursary unavailable to another who may want that university as their first choice.
David Banks, Southampton
Fair point, David Banks, but it appears from the last paragraph of the piece that Bristol is NOT then making those bursaries available to other students. It is that behaviour that seems to invite the criticism. If they really want to make it available to the most deserving students, why not award the bursaries based on grades and means after the a-level results are in?
I am a third year student and currently hold down two part time jobs in order to just about get by with living expenses. The cost of accomodation at my university has gone up by £5 a week each academic year, student loans have not increased by this much. Many students are living below the poverty line, I often have to decide whether to pay rent or buy food. Not all students have financial support from parents. The government and universities need to support the poorest students and give them the chance to excel instead of constantly offering scholarships to richer students who have had privilaged educations. I have seen this happen too many times.
Interesting to see Bristol's name crop up. Back in the late 1980s, when it was still UCCA and PCAS, you were told to put Bristol top of your UCCA form, on which you had to list unis in order of preference, or you would not even get an interview. It ranked itself second only to Oxbridge.
Mac, Bolton, UK
This is not new - when I was applying to University in the mid-1990s, the inducement was guaranteed accomodation rather than bursaries. I had quite agressive letters from one University saying that if I wanted somewhere to live I should accept their offer as first choice straight away.
Why should students have the upper hand here? Bristol isn't doing anything despicable like luring students in and then removing financial support. It's a choice. You want to study at Bristol and take their money, then make them your first choice. Else, deal with the consequences. Your decision.
Chinedu, Aberdeen, UK
I was about to enquire after a PhD in machine learning at Bristol but I have no desire to spend three years in an organisation with that attitude.
Michael, UK (not Bristol)
In itself, this practice is nothing new. As a potential undergraduate eight years ago, I was faced with a similar choice: A difficult Cambridge offer and an easier option at UCL. The incentive from University College was guaranteed accomodation which, if I chose them as a second option, would be withdrawn. Apparently this was based on practicality, but I think everyone involved realised the motivations
Nicola , Cambridge, UK
Seems to me some students want the penny and the bun. If you're happy to study at a university and get a guaranteed bursary if you opt for them as first place then accept it as part of the conditions or don't apply to them. Universities can't offer bursaries to everyone so they will be restricted to the students they *really* want as opposed to the ones they may be obliged to take it. Many students used to be sponsored through university by the services, contingent upon them serving x number of years once they'd graduated and I don't recall reading any complaints from disgruntled students saying they had their hands tied. It's no different.
Lisa, Ilford Essex
And people wonder why, despite all the efforts of staff and students alike, Oxford and Cambridge still get fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds than they might expect statistically? If a student does do well at interview and receive an Oxbridge offer (no doubt a challenging one), but then gets confronted with this sort of behaviour by alternatives like Bristol, is it any wonder that those from poorer backgrounds tend to opt for the safer choice?
Chris, Cambridge, UK