Information for:

Bursaries are helping overcome financial barriers to HE, new research shows

But more needs to be done to improve impact, awareness and understanding

The first major national research study systematically to examine the impact, awareness and take-up of university bursaries and scholarships finds that they are helping to overcome financial barriers to higher education (HE)[i] but that more needs to be done to improve awareness and understanding, particularly at key decision-making stages.

Commissioned by OFFA, and carried out by Professor Claire Callender of Birkbeck, University of London and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the study explores the impact, awareness and take-up of institutional bursaries and scholarships in England from the perspective of students, their parents, HE advisors in schools and further education colleges, and universities and colleges themselves.

The study’s summary report, ‘Awareness, take-up and impact of institutional bursaries and scholarships in England: Summary and recommendations’, finds that bursaries and scholarships are proving an effective recruitment tool for a significant minority of students[ii] – especially the highest value ones – and are successfully encouraging high-achieving lower-income students to opt for more selective universities and colleges.[iii]

But it concludes that the overall success of bursaries and scholarships as a financial incentive is being limited by:

  • the lack of knowledge, awareness and understanding of bursaries on the part of many students, parents, and HE advisors in schools and colleges – a quarter of the students and parents surveyed had not heard of bursaries. Furthermore, among those who had heard of bursaries, there were large gaps in their knowledge[iv]
  • the information-seeking behaviour of students, parents and HE advisors, particularly the timing of their information search – only two-fifths of the students surveyed said they had looked for information on bursaries before submitting their UCAS application form. Consequently, many  students did not take bursaries into account when choosing which university to apply to
  • the scope, clarity and accessibility of information provided by universities and colleges and others  – almost half of students (44%) thought there was too little information on how to apply for a bursary although universities and colleges thought they had covered this.[v]  This risked confusing some students.

OFFA has used the research findings to create new good practice guidance for universities and colleges on how they can help improve awareness and understanding of bursaries, particularly at key decision-making stages in the UCAS process. Working together with the Student Loans Company, OFFA will also use the research findings to help improve the information given to HE advisors working in schools and further education colleges.

Professor Claire Callender says: “Universities and colleges have responded positively and generously to the call to introduce bursaries, spending £192m on bursaries and scholarships for lower-income and other under-represented students in 2007-08. Together with the Student Loans Company, they have also worked hard to improve take-up of bursaries. From 2008-09, OFFA expects take-up to be 96% or higher.

“However, what this research shows is that, despite great efforts by universities and colleges to give students information, bursary messages are not always getting through. In many cases, bursaries are not helping to shape students’ choices about which universities to apply to at key decision-making stages.”

Commenting on the research findings, Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access, says: “Clearly, if we are to maximise the impact of bursaries on students’ HE decision-making, then awareness and understanding of bursaries among both students and those who advise them, must improve. Going forward, the new challenge for universities and colleges is to review and evaluate their bursary information and awareness-raising activities so that they know what works well and what doesn’t work as well. Students must know whether they qualify for a bursary, how to apply for one, and when and how much they will receive.

“We are particularly keen for universities and colleges to concentrate greater effort on awareness-raising activities at the pre-entry stage when students are researching their options. We would also urge them to target more information and awareness-raising activities specifically at parents and HE advisors in schools and colleges.

“The new Student Finance Calculator service from Student Finance England should help considerably – this will give students a comprehensive source of comparable bursary and scholarship information.”


[i] The research found that bursaries had the largest impact on the HE decisions of students who were anxious about the costs of going to university. Some 37% of students who said that the costs of university influenced their decision about whether to go to university a lot, thought bursaries were important compared to 22% of students who were unconcerned about the costs of going to university.

[ii] Nearly three out of ten students surveyed (28%) believed bursaries were important when deciding where to go to university and a quarter of students who had heard of bursaries reported that the amount of bursary available had influenced their choice of university.

[iii] Some 32% of students studying at a Russell Group university rated bursaries as important in their decision-making compared with 30% at other pre-1992 HEIs and 26% at 1994 universities and post-1992 HEIs.  The research suggests that this is probably because Russell Group students have better access to bursary information and are better informed.

[iv] Three quarters of students and two-thirds of parents did not realise that universities and colleges must give a minimum bursary to students receiving the full state maintenance grant. Almost half the students surveyed (47%) thought bursaries were one-off payments given to students in their first year. And the majority of students (56%) and 39% of their parents did not realise that bursaries were paid for by universities and colleges themselves.

[v] The majority of students (58%) who had looked at some HEI information on bursaries thought there was insufficient information on when they would receive a bursary while 44% thought there was too little on how to apply for a bursary. Almost half of students could not work out whether receiving a bursary would affect their eligibility for government grants and loans. However, 97% of the HEIs surveyed gave information on how to apply for their bursary, 85% on when students would receive a bursary and 77% explained that the receipt of a bursary did not affect students’ eligibility for government-funded support.

 Notes to editors

  1. The research programme consisted of interviews with key stakeholders; a telephone survey of 74 HEIs conducted between October and December 2008; an online survey in October 2008 of a nationally representative sample of just under 5,000 full-time undergraduate students attending HEIs in receipt of a full or partial grant; a telephone survey of 114 of the students’ parents carried out in December 2008; a telephone survey of 150 HE advisors in schools and further education colleges carried out between November 2008 and January 2009.
  2. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is an independent, non departmental public body established under the Higher Education Act 2004 to help promote and safeguard fair access to higher education. Our main remit is to regulate the charging of higher tuition fees by institutions offering higher education courses.
  3. All the research reports will be available on the OFFA website from Thursday 3 December 2009 at
  4. For more information, please contact Zita Adamson, OFFA’s Communications Manager, on 0117 931 7272 or 0117 931 7171 or Simon Watts, Media & Publicity Officer at Birkbeck, University of London, on 020 7380 3133.

Leave a comment