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The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.
As the Office for Fair Access publishes a report on new tools for evaluating the impact of financial support for students on efforts to widen access to HE, Dr Colin McCaig, Reader in Higher Education Policy, Sheffield Hallam University who led the research team for developing the tools, outlines the basis of the study.
Introduced by the 2004 Higher Education Act, (along with the Office for Fair Access as a regulator), financial support packages (known as bursaries) were designed to reduce the deterrent effect of variable fees on access for students from poorer backgrounds.
However, bursaries were also envisaged as a means by which institutions could differentiate their offer in the marketplace, proving choice for applicants about where to study based on the level of financial support.
Research soon revealed that the presence of - or the level of - bursary support had no apparent influence on the decision about whether poorer applicants should apply to university, and if they did decide to apply, which institution to apply to (OFFA 2010; McCaig and Adnett 2009; Callender 2013).
But what of other policy aims? Once enrolled, the bursary was intended to help those poorer students survive and prosper in the system; make them less likely to 'drop-out' and thus more likely to complete their studies and go on to graduate employment. OFFA research into the impact of bursaries across the sector found no system-wide evidence that they were an aid to retention and successful outcomes, and in recent years there has been a shift away from institutional bursaries (no longer mandatory after the 2011 White Paper), with the money instead being used for outreach work to increase the number of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In June 2015 OFFA commissioned a team led by Sheffield Hallam University to design a set of tools that institutions right across the sector could adopt in order to provide consistent evidence for this shift in funding.
Use of the statistical model we created enables the outcomes of the bursary group to be compared with those students who might be expected to have more positive outcomes in relation to:
For each institution we created a bursary group (those from families with a household income of less than £21,000) and two comparator groups: those with household income of 10 per cent more than the bursary group; and those students from the median household income level, which differed by institution.
Analyses (using enrolment data from 2009-10 through to employment data from 2014-15) from each of the partner institutions involved in the research (Sheffield Hallam University; University of Oxford; University of the West of England; University of Bedfordshire; and King's College London) and three others that piloted the methodology indicated that outcomes for financial support recipients were at least equivalent to those from their comparator groups. In other words, bursaries can close the gap in outcomes that students from poorer backgrounds would otherwise have experienced.
Use of our model in OFFA access agreement reporting will be a requirement for all institutions from 2018/19. The survey and interview tools also developed as part of this research - which can be adapted by institutions in response to the specifics of their own support packages - can be used by institutions to help redesign or refocus financial support as and when necessary, and gain a much richer picture of the lives and concerns of bursary recipients throughout the student lifecourse.
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