The case for a transparency revolution in bursaries

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£50 million is a lot to spend on something without being sure of its effectiveness. Yet according to OFFA’s recent ‘Access agreement monitoring for 2014-15: institutional evaluation and equality and diversity’ report, that’s the amount 21% of institutions are spending on financial support for students with no evaluation of its impact.

Furthermore, fewer than half of institutions analyse the effects of bursaries and other forms of financial support on access, retention and success rates of disadvantaged students. Many instead asked students participating in financial support schemes what they think about it. Unsurprisingly, they tend to see their own bursaries as ‘a good thing’.

Bursaries get mixed reviews

It should not be assumed that offering students what is essentially ‘free money’ automatically encourages them to apply to and stay on at university. Other OFFA research has suggested that financial support has little discernible effect on retention rates, and has recommended universities reapportion more money towards outreach activities instead. This has been backed by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, amongst others.

Outreach activities can also be tricky to evaluate, largely because of the difficulties of isolating the impact of specific activities amidst myriad other influences in a young person’s life and education. Yet there is ample evidence that – when delivered effectively – they can have a strong impact on poorer students’ aspirations and attainment.

One major problem with evaluating financial support is that the system has undergone so many changes in a relatively short space of time. In 2010, universities were required to offer bursaries to disadvantaged students that were a minimum of 10% of the tuition fees charged, yet this was removed when fees were tripled in 2012. We have also seen the introduction and then swift disappearance of the National Scholarship Programme, and now the replacement of maintenance grants with loans.

With that in mind, it is almost a surprise that the current system, where universities decide the amounts and criteria for the financial support they award, works as well as it does. In ‘Deserving poor? Are higher education bursaries going to the right students?’, Gillian Wyness of IOE claims that the current system is efficient at supporting the brightest, poorest students, who normally receive the most. However, Wyness also claims that this is largely due to ‘accident than design’ and that bursaries can exacerbate inequalities. For example, the most disadvantaged students can receive up to £6,000 per year at Imperial College London, compared to £500 at Liverpool John Moores University.

Seeing the wood for the trees

If financial support provision is confusing for professional researchers and universities to comprehend, what hope do the young people it’s aimed at have? Especially given more changes in the student finance system are about to be introduced: from the aforementioned abolition of maintenance grants, to the increase in tuition fees tied to the Teaching Excellence Framework.

A consultation with some young people from low socio-economic backgrounds supported on Brightside’s mentoring schemes has shown that there is widespread confusion about the type of financial support available. Applicants struggle to understand the differences between bursaries, scholarships and fee waivers, to work out who is eligible, how – or if – you have to apply, and whether the money is repayable or not.

Most applicants report confusion about where to look for information about financial support – if they were even aware about it – and felt overwhelmed by having to trawl through different sources: university websites, UCAS, The Student Room and amongst other places. One commented that it was almost like universities were “hiding this information away” as if “bursaries had some kind of stigma” because “they didn’t want poor students taking their money”.

That such perceptions exist at all should encourage universities to think hard about how information on financial support is presented. They should also note that many students said the financial support on offer was a big factor in deciding where to apply.

The government needs to explicitly incorporate information on financial support as part its plans for greater transparency in the sector and commit to such changes during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill. Universities should also properly evaluate their financial support, and publish the results as open data, so independent observers can evaluate whether financial support really is worth the vast sums being spent on it.

It is also essential to help students better understand this information. Ensuring universities include more specific details of their financial support in the Key Information Sets and Unistats would be a good start. In future, we would recommend a website which would allow students to compare exactly what they could get at different universities and on different courses based on their parental income and other criteria. It is currently much easier to the information you need when booking a holiday or buying a car, and these are much less momentous decisions than deciding whether or not to go to university. There might be debate about the impact of financial support on disadvantaged young people’s choices on whether and where to study, but one thing is clear: it’s not going to be effective if students can’t find out about the financial support on offer.

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