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,

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,

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,

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?

Expenditure on financial support

Financial support across the student lifecycle


 Student success



Questions for universities and colleges to consider

  1. How are you collecting evidence of where students would benefit most from financial support across the student lifecycle?
  1. 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?
  1. What systems do you have in place to evaluate the impact of your financial support packages?
  1. 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?
  1. How do staff members at your institution work with external partners to build an integrated approach to financial support?
  1. What systems do you have in place to develop and test new, effective approaches to target financial support in your unique institutional context?