English universities invest £124m a year in increasing the number of disadvantaged students they enrol, but there is too little robust evidence available to tell them what is most effective in improving access, a new research brief warns.
Evaluating Access, published by the Sutton Trust, reviews national and international research on widening participation and access programmes to find out which methods are most likely to help disadvantaged pupils get into higher education.
The brief highlights universities like Bristol and Chester who are investing in research in this area but finds that overall there has not been enough high-quality quantitative research undertaken in the UK.
Analysis of existing research in the US and UK suggests that summer schools, tutoring and mentoring are three methods with the most evidence of success.
The research also identifies certain features that are common to successful programmes: those that work closely with parents and teachers and offer early intervention to raise academic attainment are likely to have a positive impact.
Participation in higher education from the poorest 40% of young people has increased over the last 10 years, yet selective universities remain dominated by more privileged students. Recent Sutton Trust research found that a student from a privileged background is still 8.5 times more likely to attend a selective university than their least privileged counterparts, compared with a 2.5 fold difference in higher education generally.
With so many high-attaining low-income students still failing to gain access to higher education and the government calling on universities to double their intake of disadvantaged students by 2020, there is a clear need to find better ways to improve participation for this group and to make sure that universities’ access budgets are spent in the most effective ways.
Of the £750m spent through access agreements, £124m was spent on outreach this year, though that sum has been rising as OFFA has urged universities to focus more effort on persuading potential students from less advantaged backgrounds to apply from an earlier age. It is projected to grow to nearly £150m by 2020.
Universities are under considerable pressure to get more disadvantaged young people into higher education but there is a severe lack of evidence about the factors that make some approaches work better than others
To make sure that universities spend their access budgets in ways that genuinely improve participation rates for disadvantaged students, the research brief recommends that:
- Universities spend at least 10% of their £124m outreach budgets on evaluation with the ultimate goal of undertaking robust research trials.
- Universities should make the most of their own research expertise to undertake evaluations using comparison and control groups.
- To contribute to the wider evidence base, universities should make all their evaluations available publicly; they should collaborate with each other to build research designs that can be replicated across the sector.
- Universities should make use of joined-up data collection methods like the Common Evaluation Framework (CEM) and the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT).
- Widening participation teams should educate themselves about the existing evidence base and how they could contribute to it.
The Trust is working to address the lack of evidence in outreach programmes by working with OFFA and universities from across the sector to undertake a series of research trials measuring the effectiveness of their outreach programmes.
Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Universities are under considerable pressure to get more disadvantaged young people into higher education but there is a severe lack of evidence about the factors that make some approaches work better than others. With the access gap at our most selective universities still far too wide, we need to get a much clearer picture of what works best.”
Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: “More young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are in higher education than ever before. This Research Brief identifies some very positive examples of effective programmes and activities. In recent years, the access agreements that universities and colleges wishing to charge higher tuition fees must agree with me have become much more strategic and evidence-based.
“However, improving fair access is a complex task, and there is much still to do in order to fully understand what works best – and in what context. I am very pleased that OFFA will be working closely with the Sutton Trust in the New Year in order to enable universities to evaluate their outreach work more effectively.”