11 Ways to Get Your University Degree For Free

It’s hard to believe that going to university used to be free for everyone.

In those days, of course, far fewer people went to university. These days, with ever-increasing competition for university places as more and more students embark on what has become a rite of passage, tuition fees have soared to £9,000 a year, meaning that many more students are now considering whether getting a degree is worth this kind of money and the debt it entails. If you’re worried about the financial side of things, you’ll be reassured to know that there are still ways in which you can get a degree without paying anything – or at least by paying a substantially lower amount. In this article, we look at some of the funding opportunities that may be open to you, and show you that financial strain needn’t be a barrier to receiving the level of education you’re aiming for.

1. If you never earn more than the threshold, your degree is free

The important thing to remember with the way student finance works these days is that you don’t have to start repaying your student loan (Tuition Fee and Maintenance Loans) until you’re earning above a certain threshold, which is currently £21,000. If, when you graduate, you earn less than this amount per year, you won’t have to start your repayments. If you never earn more than this, your degree will have been completely free because you’ll never have to pay back the loans. Of course, one of the main reasons for getting a degree is that it helps boost your earning potential, so if you don’t ever end up earning more than this then you’re rather unlucky. The good news is that if you do earn over the threshold, there are funding opportunities for which you can apply now that will reduce the amount you end up having to pay back.

2. Means-tested student funding and fee reduction

If you’re at a financial disadvantage owing to your family circumstances, you’ll be able to apply for a range of so-called “means-tested” funding opportunities. This means that you’ll need to provide details of your household or family income to prove that you’re genuinely in need. The amount to which you’re entitled to will vary according to your household income, so it’s difficult to say exactly how much of your costs you’ll be able to cover with means-tested funding, but if you’re from a less well-off background you could receive a substantial amount and end up having very little (if anything) to pay back. Some universities will also reduce their fees for students from hard-up families, while others will provide generous bursaries and grants to help cover the cost of things like accommodation and textbooks. We’ll look at these opportunities shortly.

3. Maintenance Grant

Not to be confused with the Maintenance Loan, the Maintenance Grant is applied for via the Student Loans Company and is means-tested – so you’ll have to give details of your household income when you apply – and, unlike the Maintenance Loan, you don’t have to pay it back. You’ll need to be on a full-time degree course and an English citizen to be entitled to the Maintenance Grant (EU students aren’t eligible for it), which will be paid to you at the start of each term. Note that if you do receive a Maintenance Grant, there’ll be a corresponding decrease in the amount you’re entitled to via the Maintenance Loan. The Maintenance Grant is designed to help you cover living costs while you’re at university, and if your household income is lower than £25,000, you’ll be able to apply for up to £3,387 a year. There’s a handy online student finance calculator to help you work out how much you’re entitled to.

4. Special Support Grant

If you’re on Income Support or Housing Benefit, you might be able to get a Special Support Grant, which is typically given to single parents or those with disabilities. The amount you receive via this grant is the same as the Maintenance Grant, the difference being that you can still apply for the maximum Maintenance Loan as well.

5. Travel grants

If you’re going to be studying your degree abroad, either the full course or an overseas placement on the ERASMUS scheme, you may be entitled to a travel grant to help you meet the cost of the travel expenses you’ll incur. It doesn’t matter whether the overseas part of your course is compulsory or optional, but you must be a permanent resident of the UK. You don’t have to pay back your travel grant, and the amount you’re entitled to depends on your household income. Unfortunately, you have to cover the first £303 yourself, but because you can apply for the cost of up to three return flights, as well as travel visas and medical insurance, your costs can still be significantly reduced with a grant – especially if you’re flying long-haul, which is considerably more expensive than travelling within Europe.
You can also get such a grant if you’re on a medical or dental course and have to take a UK or overseas placement as an essential part of the course (though if you’re also receiving means-tested funding from the Department of Health, you won’t be able to get a travel grant as well). If your placement is based in the UK, you can get a grant to cover the cost of travel between your home and the hospital at which you’re doing your placement. This may not prove to be a significant expense, but every little helps at a time in life when your financial resources are already under huge strain.

6. University bursaries and grants

Many universities offer bursaries or grants to students facing financial hardship while at university. These could come in the form of cash, or they could be grants to help you cover the costs of accommodation, books, course-related travel and so on. These usually don’t have to be paid back, so they’re not a loan that will contribute to your debt, and you get them in addition to, not instead of, your normal student loan allowances. The amount and conditions of the bursaries or grants that may be available to you will vary from one university to the next, so check with your university to see what financial help you may be entitled to.

7. NHS sponsorship

Are you aiming to study medicine, dentistry or healthcare? If so, you might be able to get your hands on an NHS bursary and grant – on top of your normal Maintenance Loan – to help you meet the cost of both tuition fees and living costs. Even better, NHS bursaries don’t have to be paid back. If you’re doing a six-year medical degree, the first four years of your course are funded in the same way as other courses, but after that, you can get your tuition fees paid in full by the NHS, as well as a bursary dependent on your income. This will go a long way to compensating you for the extra expense involved in doing these longer courses rather than a standard three or four-year course. The conditions surrounding exactly what you’ll get are quite complicated, as they depend on various factors such as your household income (for the bursary), how long you’re studying for and how many weeks a year, whether you’re studying in London, living with your parents and so on. You can find out more here.

8. Sponsorship from the Armed Forces

If you’re aiming for a career in the Armed Forces, but you still want to do a degree first (either to keep your long-term options open or to prepare yourself for a more specialised Forces role), the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force all offer sponsorship for those undertaking any degree course prior to entry to the Forces (some specific bursaries may lean more towards students who are embarking on engineering, medical or dentistry degrees). The Army’s Undergraduate Bursary is typical of the way such Armed Forces undergraduate sponsorship schemes work. It gives you between £6,000 and £8,000 depending on how long your course is, and it doesn’t matter what subject you study. This isn’t freely given money, though: you’ll have to pass officer selection first, and then when you complete your degree you’ll be expected to take up a place at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, after which you’ll have to serve at least three years as a Regular Officer. The Army also offers a bursary aimed at talented musicians, offering £1,500 towards a three-year music course for those looking to join the Corps of Army Music.

9. Get sponsored by a company

It’s not just the Armed Forces that sponsors students through university with the expectation that the student takes up a job with them. Companies do it too, as it’s part of their long-term investment in securing the highest-quality graduates (although they don’t always expect you to take a job with them after you graduate). To give you an example of such a scheme, Siemens has on offer both financial and workplace support to undergraduate students at a number of UK universities through its Power Academy and E3 Industrial Academy, as well as individual sponsorship agreements with the Universities of Cambridge and Lincoln. These agreements enable you to receive financial support as well as having access to industry placements over the summer to help ready you for a job in the industry. Another example of a company willing to fund the education of future employees is BAE Systems, the aerospace company, which offers an MSc bursary scheme to those pursuing masters degrees accredited by the Royal Aeronautical Society, as well as several annual sponsorships for those studying Systems Engineering. Google “undergraduate sponsorship” and you’ll find plenty more opportunities to explore.

10. National Scholarship Programme

If you come from a home in which the household income is £25,000 or less, you can apply for the National Scholarship Programme through your university or college. Financial support through this programme can take a variety of forms, including a cash bursary of up to £1,000 or financial help with your tuition fees and accommodation. It’s probably not going to give you a degree completely free of charge, but it will help lessen your student debt, so it’s definitely worth applying for if you meet the eligibility criteria.

11. Work in the holidays

While it’s not really “getting your degree for free”, working in the holidays will at least have a big impact on the amount of debt you’re left with by the end of your degree. The more you can save up during the holidays, the less you’ll have to take in Maintenance Loans, which brings down the cost of university significantly. Holiday jobs put you in the win-win situation of earning money to pay for your degree at the same time as giving you valuable work experience that will help land you a well-paid job, which in turn will help you pay off any student debt you do end up with as quickly as possible. The summer gives you the longest stretch in which to earn money, but you may well be able to get work in the other holidays too. For example, the Royal Mail takes on lots of extra workers in the busy run-up to Christmas. To boost your earnings still further, you could also take a part-time job during term-time, provided it doesn’t impact too much on your studies and stress levels.
Hopefully this article has shown you that funding opportunities are out there if you know where to look for them – it’s just that finding them can sometimes take a little digging (and that means some diligent Googling!). In this day and age very little in this world comes completely free – there’s usually a catch, such as costs exceeding funding, or your being tied into a commitment to work for a particular employer once you graduate. But if you’re clear about your career plans from fairly early on, there are numerous opportunities for you to cash in on that will benefit you both now and in the future.

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