Understanding the impact of institutional financial support

Project outcomes

This project concluded in December 2016. Through a collaboration with a research team led by Sheffield Hallam University, we published:

We are now developing guidance for universities and colleges to support them in using the outcomes of this project to improve evaluation of the impact of their financial support packages and this will be published soon.

Our press release and blog from Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, set out OFFA’s position on this research.

Project aims

This project was designed to help us understand more about what impact financial support (such as bursaries and scholarships) given by universities and colleges to students has on widening participation to higher education in England.

It aimed to:

Why did we do this?

There is a pressing need to improve evidence and understanding about the role that financial support plays in widening participation, as discussed in chapter 1 of the national strategy for access and student success. Universities and colleges invest substantially in financial support packages for students each year, and it is important that this money is being used effectively and in an evidence-led way. 

Previous analysis such as An interim report: Do bursaries have an effect on retention rates and Have bursaries influenced choices between universities? had found no evidence that institutional bursary schemes have an observable effect on choice of where to study, or continuation rates, for young full-time first-degree students. However, this analysis did not seek to understand the role that institutional bursaries play in the post-2012 system of student fees, so it was appropriate that we took a further look at the impact of financial support in the current context.

This project was also an opportunity to create new ways of working with universities on research and analysis that improves understanding of evidence around access, both within OFFA and throughout the higher education sector. This is a key aspect of our support for institutions to take an evidence-led approach to improving performance across the whole student lifecycle, as discussed in our recent strategic plan.

What happened?

Literature review

A review of existing evidence about the impact of financial support on the experience of students within higher education study was undertaken by Nursaw Associates after a call for evidence. This included institutional reviews and evaluation alongside peer-reviewed and published research, enabling OFFA, and the sector, to build an understanding of the broader national picture. The review, What do we know about the impact of financial support on access and student success?, was published in March 2015.

Conference and special issue of the Journal of Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning

We held a one-day conference, Your student financial support model and its contribution to access, retention and success, in March 2015, in partnership with CFE Research/Edge Hill University and Universities UK. The conference brought together academics, researchers and practitioners interested in the impact of financial support on disadvantaged students’ experience of higher education. 

Papers from the conference have been published in a special issue of the Journal of Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. They contain a wealth of new evidence about the impact of financial support on the experience of higher education students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and show that financial support can make a positive contribution to the student experience, and to continuation and completion, when it is combined with other types of support. The special issue is available in full to subscribers in Volume 17, number 3 of the Journal (please note that the cost of subscribing to the Journal may be counted as access agreement expenditure). Non-subscribers can read the following open access articles:

Research on students’ use of online financial information

Digital marketing agency Net Natives used digital behavioural research to investigate students’ use of online financial information, with advice from OFFA. The research, What, when and where are students searching?, found that students from more financially advantaged backgrounds are much more likely to access information about bursaries and scholarships than those from less advantaged backgrounds.

Development of a statistical model to evaluate the impact of financial support

In June 2015 OFFA commissioned a team led by Colin McCaig of the Sheffield Institute of Education (formerly Centre for Education and Inclusion Research) at Sheffield Hallam University to take this work forward and further improve evaluation and understanding of the impact of institutional financial support packages on student success. They developed:

Phase One of the project developed and implemented a working statistical model for assessing the impact of student bursaries. In February 2016, we published an interm report providing an update on this. In Phase Two of the project, the researchers tested the model with five more institutions. The final report, Closing the gap: understanding the impact of institutional financial support on student successpublished in December 2016, sets out the findings of this project. The accompanying technical workbook will assist institutions in implementing the model in their own contexts. 

The intention is that this work will lead to longer-term improvements in evaluation and understanding through ongoing use of the common measures and survey tools by universities and colleges throughout the sector.

Click here for full details of the project team.

Want more information?

For further information about this project contact Richard Shiner, OFFA Head of Evidence and Effective Practice (0117 931 7171, richard.shiner@offa.org.uk