Scholarships and bursaries explained

Scholarships and bursaries explained

Scholarships and bursaries reduce the cost of postgraduate study and the burden of debt because they don’t have to be repaid. Even if they not cover the full amount of fees and living costs – and very few do – they can reduce tuition fees, fund travel costs and provide cash grants.

So it's worth spending some time making sure you understand the different types of funding and the wide range of bodies that offer financial help.

A major source of scholarships and bursaries are universities themselves, business and industry will sometimes fund postgraduates working on projects of interest to them and philanthropists often donate money to a scheme bearing their name, the money usually distributed by university departments.

But they are not the only funders. There are tens of thousands of charities, trusts and organisations offering grants ranging from £50 to several thousand. There's nothing to stop postgraduates from combining scholarships and bursaries from several sources to build up a meaningful income stream.


It helps to disentangle the terminology before you start the hunt for support. The words 'scholarship' and 'bursary' are often used interchangeably but there is a difference between them. Scholarships, as the name suggests, reward good scholars so are usually on the basis of academic merit and suitability for the course or research post.

How to find a scholarship

Universities publish new scholarships on their websites, usually offering a fixed amount of money through fee waiver or discount or through grants for living costs and sometimes a mixture of both.

Though usually dependent on academic merit, a few do have an element of means-testing because they give priority to students in financial need.

You can't usually apply for university-administered scholarships until you have been offered a place on a masters course or your research proposal has been accepted.

There are closing dates for applications and universities advise students to apply before the deadline. You must make sure that you meet the criteria, such as a first or 2.1 undergraduate degree and a good reference from a tutor.

Sometimes there are conditions attached, such as taking on an ambassadorial role for the faculty or greeting potential applicants. Several universities state that they expect postgraduate scholarship recipients to contribute to website testimonials and promotional materials – so read the marketing with caution!

Usually the scholarship will continue for a pre-determined period, providing academic progress is made, though some are one off initial payments.

Widely available scholarships

Confusingly, there isn't always an element of competition for scholarships – the University of Sussex, for example, gives a £3,000 "scholarship" to any of its graduates going on to one of its masters courses. It also offers up to 100 scholarships of the same amount to graduates of other UK universities who attain a first class undergraduate degree.

Sometimes scholarships are designed to boost the number of postgraduates in subjects where recruitment is more difficult.

Bridging the gap

Around 40 universities have received money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to pilot new ways of funding postgraduate students. Coventry University is using the money to discount fees for 40 places on its engineering and IT masters courses. Others are linking up with industry to offer work placements as part of the courses and the University of Essex will give a £5,000 fee waiver to postgraduates who act as mentors to undergraduates.

Overseas students

Postgraduate education in the UK is heavily dependent on overseas students and universities offer separate schemes to attract them, usually by discounted fees but sometimes including money towards living costs. Additionally, there are national schemes such as Commonwealth Scholarships that are provided by member governments to citizens of other Commonwealth countries. The UK government offers Chevening Scholarships to outstanding international students with leadership potential and Marshall Scholarships help outstanding American students to do postgraduate courses in the UK.

Teaching scholarships

UK students on postgraduate teacher training courses can claim scholarships or training bursaries that pay a substantial amount of the cost. The amount depends on the subject specialism. Students with at least a 2.1 degrees who want to teach maths, physics, chemistry and computing can apply for a scholarship of £25,000.

There are non-means tested training bursaries for other subjects, ranging from £4,000 to £25,000, dependent on the class of undergraduate degree, subject and whether you are training to be a primary or secondary school teacher.

Top tips for finding a university scholarship

  • Use TARGETpostgrad’s funding database to find scholarships by subject or university
  • Monitor university websites
  • Identify charities working in your field and find out if they are supporting postgraduate study and at which universities
  • Look at business and industry to see if there are companies linked to your field that might be supporting university scholarships
  • See if you can find researchers working in your area who might tell you where to look for sponsorship
  • If you are not from the UK, see what scholarships your government, national charities and businesses offer
  • Consult the British Council's Education UK website for information on national scholarships for international students.


Few postgraduate bursaries are now means-tested and the word has come to mean 'not dependent on academic merit'. Postgraduate students in financial difficulties can apply to university hardship or access funds, especially those with dependent children. You will need to supply financial information and show that you have first tried to obtain funding from other sources.

Though bursaries are not usually dependent on academic competition, they do require applicants to have a good undergraduate degree and references.

How to find a bursary

The most common are alumni or 'loyalty' bonuses awarded to undergraduates to go on to postgraduate study with the same institution. Some universities offer bursaries for students with first class degrees. It’s worth checking the fees and finance sections of university websites for less common offerings – such as the 10% fee discount Kingston gives to siblings, spouses and children of alumni.

Some university bursaries are linked to outside organisations, such as the £5,000 a year Leverhulme Trade Charities Trust bursaries at Aston University open to students who have a close family member who is working, or has retired from, a job as a commercial traveller, chemist or grocer.

Bursaries are also used to reduce the fees for courses or research areas that are less popular or for subjects that universities wish to develop.

NHS bursaries

A range of postgraduate courses are eligible for NHS bursaries, such as those for speech language therapists, chiropodists, dieticians or prosthetists. These are means tested on household income. If you have been living independently you will be assessed on your income. If you have been dependent on your parents – while studying for an undergraduate degree for example – you will be means-tested on parental income.

Top tips for applicants

  • Check the closing deadline and apply as early as possible
  • Make sure you meet the eligibility criteria
  • Highlight your academic achievements – don’t take it for granted that your qualifications speak for themselves
  • Draw attention to any personal qualities, such as leadership roles, voluntary work or special interests
  • Have good academic references to back up your application
  • If you your first language is not English you will need certificates of competency in recognised qualifications such as IELTS or TOEFL.