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How to open up university to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds

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04 August 2021

How to open up university to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds

Professor of Higher Education Policy

Wednesday 4 August • Viewing time: 2 minutes

How effective are widening participation schemes, designed to encourage students from under-represented groups to apply for university? Professor Colin McCaig has developed a series of tools to measure their impact.

More people than ever are going to university in the UK. Student numbers have doubled since 1992. But there are some groups who are still much less likely to progress to higher education — for example, people from low-income households, Black people, care leavers and disabled people.

Universities and government bodies like the Office for Fair Access spend a lot of time and money on activities to try to attract more people from under-represented groups to apply for a place. These activities come under the term ‘widening participation’ (WP), and they are usually split between two different types — financial support such as bursaries for individual students, and outreach work with schools.

Through our research, we developed tools to fully evaluate the effectiveness of WP initiatives for the first time — allowing us to see what works, what doesn’t, and what’s most effective in giving people from disadvantaged backgrounds the access to university they deserve.

Measuring the benefit of bursaries

One way universities try to increase access is by offering means-tested bursaries — giving money directly to students from lower-income backgrounds. Until 2012 it was mandatory to offer bursaries. But since then some universities have started to phase them out, choosing instead to put resources towards learning support for students, such as study skills workshops.

I led the team that developed a set of evaluation tools — used by over 90 universities — to help determine the effectiveness of bursaries. 

The evaluation involves tracking students from different income groups and watching their progress through university and beyond. We also ask students a standard set of questions about how they spend the money, allowing us to compare data between different universities across the UK.

The case for bursaries

The bursary we studied was given to students who came from a household with a total income of less than £25,000. We compared the progress of students from this group with two control groups — those from households with incomes of £26–30,000 (so just above the threshold needed to receive a bursary), and students from households with income greater than £30,000 (in other words, all other students).

Knowing what we do about inequality, you might expect the poorest group to do the worst. But actually we found that the lowest income group, who received the bursary, had a similar level of performance as the group with the highest household income. It was the £26–30,000 group, who had just missed out on the bursary, who struggled. This showed that the bursary was having a positive impact on achievement.

In fact, for some groups such as mature students — who may be struggling with childcare and perhaps caring for an elderly relative at the same time — a bursary can be the difference between them continuing their studies or dropping out. My research was able to demonstrate the continued value of bursaries as part of a mix of WP initiatives.

group of students working

Professionalising outreach activities

Another aspect of widening participation is outreach activities. Universities reach out to pupils who may not have considered higher education before, through school visits or events such as open days and summer schools.

Before we started this work there was a lack of proper research into the effectiveness of different outreach activities. We developed tools to train staff working in WP, in order to professionalise the way outreach is delivered and evaluated.

Now proper evaluation is carried out on outreach, with professional pre- and post-activity surveys testing the real impact of each scheme. It’s a much more robust way of measuring success than has been used before. 

It helps us target interventions to where they will have the most impact — identifying those in the middle, ‘the yolk of the egg’, rather than wasting resources on people at the top who were coming to university anyway, and people at the bottom who wouldn’t be able to achieve the grades required.

Transforming lives through widening participation

In all of these areas, my work over the last fifteen years has been about providing evidence for how effective WP policies are. 

More than 90 universities are now using our evaluation tools every year. New initiatives such as Uni Connect have been launched to improve the outcomes of outreach work. And many staff in widening participation have been upskilled, allowing them to deliver more effective activities.

This is what gets me up in the morning. Because, at the end of it all, widening participation is about addressing inequality, and trying to give everyone the same opportunities in life, no matter where they come from.

For me, it’s personal. I left school at 16. I was a forklift truck driver, and I didn’t enter higher education until I was 31. Now I’m a professor. We know it can be done. But there are plenty of other people like me who didn’t get the opportunity to fulfil their potential. My work is dedicated to giving more disadvantaged people those opportunities.

Staff

Colin McCaig

Professor Colin McCaig

Professor of Higher Education Policy

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Manny Madriaga

Dr Manuel Madriaga

Senior Lecturer in Education Studies

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About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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