What’s the difference between bursaries and scholarships?

UK universities welcome students from all backgrounds and abilities, and they financially support students using bursaries and scholarships. Lots of students ask what’s the difference between bursaries and scholarships, so this article unpacks the details.

The main difference between a bursary and a scholarship is that bursaries are usually awarded to students based on their background or financial circumstances. Scholarships are offered to students who are academically outstanding.

Universities are encouraged to make their recruitment policies as inclusive as possible. Every UK university will offer some form of financial support to students.

Bursaries and scholarships are funded from a number of sources, some of it from private donations and trusts. Each year the university will agree the level of support it will be making available to students.

In exceptional circumstances a student that meets the criteria can be awarded both a bursary and a scholarship. The university is committed to support students wherever possible.

A good example of this is a sports scholarship. In this scenario the scholarship recognises outstanding performance on track and field. A bursary is awarded at the same time because the student comes from a low-income family.

A music scholarship would also apply in the same way. Many famous international artists got their first break through being awarded a scholarship to a prestigious music school or conservatoire.

At masters level, bursaries and scholarships are used to attract students from certain countries. This applies where there are not many sources of additional funding available, or widespread social deprivation.

This also applies to masters merit scholarships where students are underrepresented. Scholarships are offered to encourage more women and people of colour into key subject areas, such as STEM subjects. Scholarships help to positively reinforce inclusivity and the value of university education.

How do you apply for bursaries and scholarships?

Most bursaries are based on the financial situation of the student. Students understand their position regarding fees before they make decisions about courses, particularly at masters level.

Universities often make bursaries available to students when they make an application, but it is the responsibility of the student to seek out information as soon as possible. Make sure you search out bursaries and scholarships as soon as you have settled on a course or a university.

Universities will have a fixed number of bursaries and scholarships available throughout the year. It’s easy to miss out on the opportunity if you make enquiries too late. Don’t assume the university will realise you are eligible. Make sure they have all your details as soon as possible.

Scholarships are also offered at certain times of the year. Some universities will advertise these on Postgraduate Studentships, so you will be the first to know when they are announced if you are signed up to receive our newsletters.

The UK Government makes funding available to support groups of students in important masters subjects such as science and technology. This is because there is a demand for qualified graduates in this field and also there are groups of students who are underrepresented in the sectors.

Universities offer masters conversion courses which can be another way to gain access to bursaries and scholarships. These are targeted towards students who may have studied a different subject at undergraduate level. The conversion course is to up-skill to a new industry with the benefit of a masters degree.
Data Science and AI are examples where there is financial support available for groups if individuals.

Who are the main bursaries and scholarship providers?

Often what's the difference between bursaries and scholarships comes down to nationality. Scholarships awarded to candidates from countries of the British Commonwealth are very well established. GREAT Scholarships offers scholarships from UK universities, across a variety of subjects for students from 18 countries.

Each scholarship with participating UK higher education institutions is worth a minimum of £10,000 towards tuition fees for a one-year taught postgraduate course.
International Scholarships are offered by the UK Government through the Chevening Scholarship system. Chevening grants awards to individuals with outstanding leadership and influencing skills from around the world, to enable them to experience a period of study in the UK.

In the United States the Fulbright Program was set up by a treaty between the US and UK just after the second world war. Its aims were to support study and create impact through the promotion of academic excellence and curiosity, advancing human knowledge.

Additionally, the Marshall Scholarships were established in the 1950s with similar aims to the Fullbright Program, and both schemes have supported thousands of young academics from the US and other nations.

Are there alternatives to bursaries and scholarships?

There are a number of subject-based scholarships that are awarded to masters students. STEM based ones are the most common but there are others covering niche subjects which are supported by charities and trusts.

These cover both research masters and PhDs, and they recognise the need to maintain interest in specific subjects and groups that may not otherwise receive widespread support. Postgraduate Studentships includes a section listing a number of Charities and Trusts.

Vocational Bursaries

There are two main career pathways using bursaries to support students.

Teacher Training Bursary

Teaching bursaries are available for students that are training to teach. These are tax-free amounts of money you receive to train in certain subjects. The bursary is given automatically if you meet the criteria. The money is yours to keep! The teaching subjects that attract the support include:-

  • Biology £10,000
  • Chemistry £24,000
  • Computing £24,000
  • Design and technology £15,000
  • Geography £15,000
  • Languages £15,000
  • Maths £24,000
  • Physics £24,000

The scheme recognises students with a 2.2 Bachelors degree as well as a masters or PhD. Individual terms and conditions apply.

Scholarships for specific teaching subjects are available from the following organisations: -

The NHS Learning Support Fund

This scheme is to support masters students intending to train for Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Professions. The annual training grant is worth £5,000 a year, with additional amounts of £1,000 if training in priority areas. This includes Mental Health nursing, learning Disabilities, Orthoptics and Orthotics, Podiatry, Prosthetics and Radiography.

An additional £2,000 support is offered for parents of at least one dependent child under 15 years, or under 17 years if registered with special educational needs

There is money back for excess travel and temporary accommodation costs (Travel and Dual Accommodation Expenses) while you're on your practice placement. In addition, there is an Exceptional Support Fund for students experiencing financial hardship.

Tips for completing an application for bursaries and scholarships

What’s the difference between bursaries and scholarships is a matter of planning.

  • Think about your situation

If you have been able to fund your studies with little external financial support, then you are unlikely to be considered for an income-based bursary. A merit scholarship may be open to you, but again if you are unlikely to meet the grades required because of previous struggles with exams and assessment then again you probably won’t get onto the shortlist.

  • Work out your priorities

Invest your time and effort on making the most of your university masters experience, and if you have a lucky windfall, or a fund becomes available where you might be a perfect fit then so much the better – you have not lost anything.

  • Set realistic goals

Don’t choose your course or university just because of the bursaries and scholarships. Remember the decision about study has to be the right one. Having access to additional financial help is great but needs to be balanced against the reality of studying, and your future employment prospects if that is a motivation. what’s the difference between bursaries and scholarships.

  • Prepare your application carefully

If the university requires that you submit your reasons for a scholarship application then make sure you complete it correctly, with all the necessary documentation. If they ask for reasons why you are a good candidate, then take time to prepare your answers and get a colleague or friend to check it thoroughly.