Topic briefing: financial support
Case study: Newcastle University
The university has worked with its students’ union to offer Participation Bursaries. The aim is to enhance the student experience by enabling students from disadvantaged backgrounds to meet the costs of participating in extra-curricular activities. Newcastle is using a national survey and online questionnaires to gather evidence about the impact of its financial support.
For further information contact Lucy Backhurst, Head of Undergraduate Recruitment and Admissions, email@example.com.
Case study: University of Bristol
The institution conducted a review of its financial support and found that some packages were not effectively targeted at those students who would benefit most. As a result, the institution re-targeted its financial support at students from under-represented groups and rebalanced some spend towards activity to increase access and student success.
One of the university’s financial support packages which was found to have an impact was the ‘Access to Bristol’ initiative, which targets local learners and offers fee waivers and bursaries across all years of study. A total of 156 ‘Access to Bristol’ students applied to the university for 2013-14 entry and of these, 37 students started as undergraduates compared with a target of 27. Student feedback suggests that the commitment of a guaranteed offer combined with some element of financial support acts as a significant incentive to apply. Following a review of this feedback, the fee waiver is now offered in the first year of study only.
For further information contact Lucy Collins, Head of Widening Participation and Undergraduate Recruitment, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Case study: University of Bedfordshire
Following research, the institution has made sure their financial support aligns more with activity to support student success and progression. For example, the university provides financial support to help disadvantaged students with the costs of undertaking career-related work experience. This funding can be used to cover travel or accommodation and any additional care costs incurred.
For further information contact Amands Krebs, Director of Partnership Operations, email@example.com.
Please note that this topic briefing was prepared in July 2015. Since this time, a team at Sheffield Hallam University has been working on a research project commissioned by OFFA to develop an evaluation methodology which can be used by institutions to measure the impact of financial support in their own contexts. In December 2016, OFFA published the final report and evaluation tools developed through this project. Our position on financial support has not fundamentally changed, but we do strongly encourage all institutions to start using this tool, and will be seeking evidence of equally as robust methodologies where it is not used.
This briefing gives an overview of financial support provided to students through access agreements. It covers some of the evidence around financial support, and explains how universities and colleges are using financial support in their access agreements. It also suggests questions that institutions might wish to consider when further developing this work in future.
We hope this briefing will stimulate thinking and discussion about how mature learners could be supported more effectively by universities and colleges, leading to more evidence-led approaches tailored to institutions’ own context and circumstances.
What is the evidence around financial support?
There is conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of financial support. Research conducted by OFFA in 2010 found no evidence that bursaries influenced students’ choice of university. Subsequent research by OFFA analysed the impact of bursaries on retention under the old system of fees. Our interim report, published in 2014, found no evidence that institutional bursary schemes had an observable effect on the continuation rates of young full-time first degree students.
However, research outlined in the national strategy for access and student success does suggest that financial support may have an effect on the student experience while studying. Also, some institutions have found attitudinal evidence in favour of financial support – both as a tool for access and retention. But this evidence has not – to date – been corroborated by changes in behaviour at a national level.
OFFA’s in-house research has focused on students who entered higher education before 2012. We do not discount the possibility that financial support may be effective under the new system of fees and student support. As such, we will be conducting further analysis looking at whether bursaries have had an effect on retention under the new system.
We are keen to further investigate the impact of financial support at an institutional level in partnership with the sector. We are also keen to encourage the sector to conduct further robust evaluation of the effectiveness and impact of their financial support. With this in mind, OFFA is conducting a research project to understand the impact of financial support on student success.
In March 2015 we published a review (conducted for OFFA by Nursaw Associates) of evidence and research into the impact of financial support. This review found that financial support is not the most important factor in students’ decisions to apply to higher education and that students in receipt of financial support have comparable non-continuation rates with those who receive no financial support. However, it also found that a sizeable minority of students feel financial support does impact on their behaviour, showing financial support may affect students’ attitudes and relationships with their institutions.
OFFA’s guidance on financial support
We continue to encourage institutions to rebalance expenditure toward activity spend across the student lifecycle, focusing on those areas where they most need to make progress. We want to see evidence-led spend with a balance struck between activity and financial support. Where institutions are committed to providing financial support, we encourage them to evaluate the success of their schemes. Our guidance on financial support has led to institutions rebalancing expenditure and committing new spend to activity from 2014-15 (see Figure 1). Consequently, spend on financial support as a proportion of expenditure has decreased. However, financial support remains a significant proportion of projected access agreement expenditure.
How are institutions using financial support in access agreements?
- Institutions offer a variety of different financial support schemes designed to mitigate the potential risks to widening participation of higher fees and enhance access, student success, and progression.
- As well as offering financial support through bursaries and scholarships, some institutions offer ‘in-kind support’ and institutional services, such as accommodation discounts, reduced membership of sports and other societies, subsidised meals, book-buying schemes and subsidised internship places. An example of ‘in-kind’ support is Bradford College, which offers credit which can be spent on laptop computers, printing, accommodation discounts, bicycle loans, meal vouchers, transport cards, subsidised field trips and lab use, or childcare.
Expenditure on financial support
- Under their 2015-16 access agreements, universities and colleges estimate that they will spend over £440 million on financial support. This remains the largest proportion of institutions’ access agreement investment. Therefore it is important that universities and colleges continue to evaluate and review the effectiveness of their financial support schemes.
- Under their 2015-16 access agreements, universities and colleges predict that they will spend an average of 16.2 per cent of their higher fee income on financial support.
- On average, higher education institutions (HEIs) with a high proportion of students from under-represented groups are spending 9.9 per cent of higher fee income on financial support in 2015-16. This is a decrease of 6 percentage points from 2014-15.
- HEIs with a low proportion of students from under-represented groups are spending 22.7 per cent of higher fee income on financial support in 2015-16. This is a decrease of 2.1 percentage points from 2014-15.
- Nine institutions have not included any spend on financial support by steady state under their 2015-16 access agreements. Instead, these institutions are investing in activity to support student success. Some are also offering bursaries or scholarships that fall outside access agreement expenditure, for example because they are not financed by higher fee income.
Financial support across the student lifecycle
- Research commissioned by OFFA and carried out by Professor Claire Callender suggests that financial support is most effective when it is accompanied by clear, comprehensive, and early advice.
- Around a quarter of institutions in their 2015-16 access agreements emphasise the importance of providing clear and accessible information regarding their financial support provision. We would encourage more institutions to provide timely information to prospective students early on in the application cycle so that they can make informed choices. The University of Sheffield conducted a survey into the impact of its financial support packages with current students and Year 13 students from a range of local schools and colleges. The survey outcomes suggested that institutional financial support had a substantial impact on higher education decisions for around a fifth of University of Sheffield students who responded to the survey, demonstrating the benefit to institutions of providing clear and accessible financial support information.
- About a third of institutions with a 2015-16 access agreement offer financial support to part-time learners. There has been a significant and sustained reduction in the numbers of part-time students (the number of part-time students has nearly halved between 2010-11 and 2013-14 as shown in Figure 11 of Universities UK’s Trends in undergraduate recruitment report). This is concerning because part-time students are more likely to come from groups under-represented in higher education, for example, those with caring responsibilities or dependents or those from low-income backgrounds who are working to support their studies (for more information, please see Universities UK’s The Power of Part Time report). Some part-time students do not have access to state support and would therefore benefit most from financial support. For example, Birkbeck, University of London, offers a specifically targeted initiative for part-time students with household incomes of below £40,000 who are unable to access government supported maintenance grants and loans. Feedback from Birkbeck students and Students’ Union suggests the decision-making of part-time students was particularly impacted by fee increases. It is, therefore, particularly important to consider this group when designing financial support packages
- Students tell institutions that financial support can foster a sense of belonging and wellbeing.
- A small number of institutions (8 per cent) say that their financial aid packages support student belonging, a full student experience, or enhance wellbeing. Key research published in 2012 presents evidence on how a sense of belonging may support success at university. An important aspect of Anglia Ruskin University’s Books Plus scheme is the ‘engagement’ element which aims to increase student retention and success by encouraging students to spend capped amounts of their bursary on students’ union run societies and sports activities. This encourages students to build networks and ensures they are linked in to University life and feel a sense of belonging.
- Around 6 per cent of universities offer grade-contingent financial support. The University of Keele awards Excellence Scholarships of up to £2,000 a year for each year of undergraduate study to students who attain excellent grades in their pre-entry qualifications.
- 14 per cent of institutions use financial support to help improve retention and general on-course attainment.
- A key survey report published by NUS-USI suggests that financial difficulties are responsible for non-continuation at university. Over a third of students surveyed for this report seriously considered leaving their course and of these, 56 per cent cited financial difficulties as the main reason.
- A number of institutions are using bursaries and scholarships to support progression from higher education.
- 6 per cent of universities offer progression-based financial provision
- About 20 per cent of institutions provide financial support for work experience, internships and placements (including sandwich years and work with student ambassadors). The University of Bedfordshire provides financial support to help disadvantaged students with the costs of undertaking career-related work experience where that work experience is either unpaid, low paid or the student will incur additional costs associated with taking up the opportunity. This funding can be used to cover travel or accommodation (where the work location is not local) and/or dependent care costs.
- The majority of institutions are carrying out evaluation of their financial support. Institutions are more likely to tell us about this evaluative work in their monitoring returns (80 per cent of institutions said they were evaluating financial support in their 2013-14 monitoring returns) than in their access agreements (60 per cent of institutions discuss financial support evaluation in their 2015-16 access agreements).
- Different methods of evaluation include evaluating the opinions of participants and evaluating the impact on students’ behaviour (by analysing access, retention and attainment rates). Lancaster University has conducted a statistical analysis of internal data which includes detailed information about financial support received and student success rates at the level of the individual student. This showed that students from the NS-SEC (4-7) group who did not receive financial support were more likely to drop out than students from the NS-SEC (1-3) group with equivalent entry grades. However, the students from the NS-SEC (4-7) group who did receive financial support had almost identical drop-out rates to equivalent students from the NS-SEC (1-3) group, suggesting that the provision of bursaries eliminated the social class effect on completion rates.
- We encourage institutions to continue to evaluate the effectiveness of their financial support and to think creatively about how they can maximise the impact of such support.
Questions for universities and colleges to consider
- How are you collecting evidence of where students would benefit most from financial support across the student lifecycle?
- Are your financial support packages aligned with your institutional strategy to encourage smarter, evidence-led spend?
- How could you better listen to and engage with your learners in receipt of financial support so that their needs are fully understood and any barriers facing them can be effectively addressed?
- How have the needs of part-time students been considered in the development of your financial support packages?
- What systems do you have in place to review the clarity and accessibility of the information on financial support you provide for prospective and current students?
- What systems do you have in place to evaluate the impact of your financial support packages?
- How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the eligibility criteria, value and delivery of your financial support to ensure it is targeted where it will have the greatest impact?
- How will you help inform effective practice by sharing the results of your evaluation
- How do staff members at your institution work flexibly and collaboratively with others at all levels across the whole institution to build an integrated approach to financial support?
- Do you link financial support to access and student success activity? For example, do you offer additional mentoring to students in receipt of financial support?
- How do staff members at your institution work with external partners to build an integrated approach to financial support?
- What systems do you have in place to monitor and evaluate collaborative activity to ensure that your collective resources are having an impact?
- What systems do you have in place to develop and test new, effective approaches to target financial support in your unique institutional context?