OFFA research finds ‘no evidence’ of positive effect of bursaries on student retention

Research published today by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) finds no evidence that bursaries have a positive effect on whether students will continue their studies.

OFFA have analysed retention rates of students eligible for bursaries delivered through access agreements under the old system of fees and student support from 2006-07 to 2010-11. The interim report, ‘Do bursaries have an effect on retention rates?’ finds that neither the size nor availability of a bursary has an observable effect on a student’s likelihood of continuation. This remains the case after the other factors which may have an effect on retention – for example a student’s prior attainment or social background – have been taken into account.

Other key findings of the report show that:

  • Disadvantaged students, whether defined directly by income or indirectly by areas of disadvantage, have the lowest expected rates of continuation. In 2010-11 3.8 per cent fewer students from the low income group continued their studies compared to those students from the high income group [note 2]. Similarly, 4.0 per cent fewer students from neighbourhoods where the fewest people attend higher education continued compared to those from neighbourhoods with highest levels of participation. Even after we use statistical modeling to adjust for those factors that affect continuation, disadvantaged students still have the lowest expected rates of continuation. 
  • There is evidence that a student’s prior attainment is the most significant factor in predicting the likelihood that they will continue with their studies.

 Commenting on the report, Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said:

“This report makes an important contribution to the evidence base, helping us to understand what is most effective in helping poor and other disadvantaged students stay on at university or college and complete their studies. Previous research by us [note 3] showed that bursaries do not have an observable effect on the choice of university for disadvantaged young people. Now this new piece of OFFA analysis shows that bursaries may not be the powerful retention tool that many currently believe them to be.

“At this stage, we’re not ruling out the possibility that bursaries may have an effect on retention rates – what we’re saying is that, within the constraints of the data currently available to us, we have not been able to detect any such effect. In future, we’ll have access to much richer data showing us the exact bursary amounts received by individual students and we hope that we will then be able to present more conclusive findings.

“In the meantime, we will be urging universities and colleges to take this powerful new evidence into account when deciding how best to balance spending under the access agreements they draw up with us. In particular, we will be encouraging them to rebalance their investment towards both targeted, sustained activities that raise attainment and aspirations [note 4], and activities that support students in successfully continuing their studies and progressing to employment or postgraduate study [note 5]. We are also asking those universities and colleges who believe that bursaries aid retention at their particular institution to share their evidence with OFFA to help us build our understanding of the impact of bursaries.”



For further information, contact Zita Adamson (OFFA Communications Manager) on 0117 931 7272 or Sean Beynon (OFFA Press and Communications Adviser) on 0117 931 7022, or email

Notes to editors

  1. A copy of OFFA’s research – An interim report: Do bursaries have an effect on retention rates? is available from
  2. The report classifies students based on their household residual income. Students with a household residual income of less than £25,000 are categorised in the low income group; students with a household residual income of between £25,000 and £50,020 are categorised in the middle income group; and students with a household residual income of more than £50,020 are categorised in the high income group.
  3. For further information, please see OFFA publication 2010/06 Have bursaries influenced choices between universities? This is available at:
  4. Evidence shows that one of the most important ways in which universities and colleges can improve access is through outreach work with students in low participation neighbourhoods and schools where very few people progress to higher education, targeting students at an early age and working with them over a number of years. Outreach work should start early – identifying talented young people from primary age upwards. These pupils should continue to receive support through secondary school, and may receive advice on the most appropriate GCSE and A-Level choices, as well as practical academic help, perhaps in the form of academic mentoring or homework clubs. OFFA also encourages universities to work in collaboration with employers, community groups and other organisations that can help raise the aspirations of potential mature learners. 
  5. Universities and colleges have put a number of measures in place, other than financial means, to support those students who may be at risk of withdrawing from their studies. This can include: induction programmes; pastoral support; or curriculum changes – for example alterations to take into account the needs of part-time students.
  6. 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 for people from under-represented groups. All English universities and colleges must make plans to promote and sustain fair access, in order to charge higher fees. These plans will include outreach (e.g. summer schools, mentoring, after-school tuition, links with schools and colleges in disadvantaged areas), activities to improve retention and success, and financial support such as bursaries and scholarships. OFFA must approve these plans and then monitors their implementation. For more information see

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *