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.