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Targeted outreach is the key to widening access at highly selective universities

New statistical analysis published by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) shows that disadvantaged young people have not been influenced by the size of bursary on offer when making university choices.

In the light of the finding, OFFA will be asking universities that currently use higher bursaries to encourage applications from disadvantaged students to consider diverting some of this money to targeted outreach work with schools and colleges.

Commenting on the research, Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access, said: “Although bursaries have succeeded in their main objective[1] – to ensure that students are not deterred from going to university on financial grounds – this new analysis shows that the larger bursaries generally offered by the most selective universities have not changed students’ decision-making when applying and choosing between offers. There is now mounting evidence that targeted outreach which boosts achievement and aspirations among disadvantaged young people at a much earlier stage is a more effective way of widening access to these universities.”

“Clearly, these are highly significant findings which show that issues surrounding widening access to the most selective universities go much deeper than purely financial obstacles. However, while this research shows that the current level of bursaries has not influenced choice between universities, larger bursaries or fee waivers for the most disadvantaged could have an important role to play in the future under any new student finance system.”

The research, ‘Have bursaries influenced choices between universities’, analyses millions of higher education application and participation choices made by young people.

It finds that since the introduction of bursaries for lower income students in 2006:

  • disadvantaged young people have not become more likely to apply to universities and colleges offering higher bursaries – these tend to be the most selective universities
  • nor have they become more likely to choose higher bursary universities and colleges when they are made an offer of a place
  •  most of the recent increases in higher education participation among disadvantaged young people have been in universities offering lower bursaries – there has been no material increase in the participation rate of disadvantaged young people at universities and colleges offering higher bursaries.

Commissioned by OFFA from Dr Mark Corver, a participation expert at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), in collaboration with UCAS, the analysis is consistent with the analysis of trends in participation at selective universities published by OFFA earlier this year[2]. This showed that participation of disadvantaged young people in the most selective universities – which tend to offer the highest bursaries – has remained almost flat since the mid-1990s. This is despite the fact that earlier attitudinal research on bursary awareness published by OFFA in 2009[3] found that around 13 per cent of students surveyed said they were influenced by the amount of bursary on offer[4].

OFFA is now awaiting the forthcoming recommendations of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance and subsequent Government policy before formulating a full policy response to these new findings. In the meantime, it is encouraging universities and colleges to look at their own experience and consider whether money intended to create fairer access to their institutions is being best spent on higher bursaries. If fees rise and if finance becomes more important, OFFA has suggested to the Browne Review that, in line with recommendations from the Sutton Trust[5], financial support in the form of fee waivers could be a more powerful way to influence applicant choice than bursaries, particularly in view of public perceptions relating to student debt.

“Our view is that fee waivers are definitely an option worth exploring, particularly schemes where the benefits can be very clearly understood and communicated such as schemes offering disadvantaged students a free and therefore risk-free first year,” said Sir Martin.


For more information, please contact Zita Adamson, Communications Manager on 0117 931 7272/931 7171 or

 Notes to editors

  • For the full report ‘Have bursaries influenced choices between universities’, please see
  • When bursaries were introduced, their main purpose was to minimise the risk that disadvantaged people would be put off going to university as a result of higher fees – a widespread fear at the time. This fear has not materialised. Far from falling, participation among disadvantaged young people has risen sharply since the 2006 reforms. However, the original Government policy also intended that bursaries should have a secondary aim – to widen participation at selective universities. It was intended that universities with further to go in securing a more representative student intake should offer higher bursaries and so encourage more disadvantaged applicants to apply and enter their university. This new analysis shows that this secondary aim has not been achieved.

  • The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) was established under the Higher Education Act 2004. Our role is to help safeguard and promote fair access to higher education by regulating the charging of higher fees. The main way we do this is by approving and monitoring access agreements.
  • All publicly funded universities and colleges in England that wish to charge tuition fees above the basic level have to submit an access agreement to us for approval and complete an annual monitoring return. Access agreements show the fees that an institution intends to charge, its plans for bursaries and other financial support for lower income and other under-represented groups, and, in some cases, additional outreach work.

[1] Over the last five years the chances of the most disadvantaged young people entering higher education have risen by 30 per cent. See also ‘Notes to editors’.

[2] Harris, M (2010) What more can be done to widen access to highly selective institutions, Office for Fair Access, Bristol. 2010/03. Annex C, Trends in young participation by selectivity of institution.

[3] Callender, C., Wilkinson, D., and Hopkin, R. (2009) The Impact of Institutional Financial Support in England: Higher Education Students’ Awareness, Knowledge and Take-Up of Bursaries and Scholarships, Office for Fair Access, Bristol.

[4] These two findings are not necessarily inconsistent – in this, as in other fields,actual behaviour does not always tally with reported behaviour. Students may genuinely feel they have been influenced by bursaries. However, our new analysis demonstrates unequivocally that patterns of behaviour in making university choices have not changed since the 2006 reforms.

[5] Sutton Trust (2010), Submission to the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance,

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