Student support: don’t shut down the debate

July 30, 2015

We write in response to the article “Offa pushes sector to do more to widen access” (News, 16 July), which states that “investment in financial support such as scholarships will continue to decrease…reflecting research that found that neither the availability nor the size of a bursary had a discernible impact on whether a student from a poor background would finish a course or not”.

This seems to suggest that bursaries and scholarships make no impact on retention. However, we would contend, based on our evidence and that of a number of universities, that there are some groups of students for whom this kind of financial support may be crucial.

Moreover, it is particularly important at this time to keep the impact of financial support as an open question given the changes to student finance announced in the recent Budget. Full-time participation rates among students from poorer backgrounds did not appear to fall following the 2012 funding reforms, but the newly announced changes are significantly different in scope and scale.

The Unite Foundation offers scholarships to UK students, predominantly care-leavers or those who are estranged from their parents. Feedback from the students suggests that the financial support we offer, including the free year-round accommodation, has played a significant role in retention. In our 2014 survey of students, almost 90 per cent agreed that the scholarship had made it possible for them to stay at university, with 60 per cent strongly agreeing.

Our position seems to be supported by research commissioned by the Office for Fair Access itself. The report What Do We Know about the Impact of Financial Support on Access and Student Success?, produced by Nursaw Associates in March, states: “We would encourage a greater understanding of particular student groups’ needs. There is very limited research on the effects of financial support on different student groups, for example, part time, mature, specific minority ethnic communities and those from families whose household income is less than £15,000…more research into how specific groups of students respond to financial support is suggested.”

As a specialist scholarship provider, we are able to go beyond the simple provision of cash, and take time to understand the needs of our target group closely. We have been able to build features into the support that we know will meet the specific needs of our target groups, such as year-round accommodation. Working closely with our university partners, we ensure that this support is seamlessly embedded within a wider support package.

We would therefore urge that the debate around the role of financial support, especially for particular student groups, is kept open rather than closed down. We entirely support the call for further research, with an emphasis on the role that financial support can play when tailored to specific needs and offered as part of a wider package designed to address genuine inequality.

Stuart Billingham
Emeritus professor of lifelong learning and trustee of Unite Foundation

Nik Miller
Trustee of Unite Foundation and director of The Bridge Group

Jenny Shaw
Chair of Unite Foundation

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