Support: money well spent

July 21, 2016

The director of fair access to higher education, Les Ebdon, is right to highlight the fact that not enough evaluation is carried out into the effectiveness of the money that institutions spend on financial support (“Spending £50m on access without evaluation ‘not acceptable’”, News, 14 July). That is why a group of five universities, led by Sheffield Hallam University and including the University of the West of England, the University of Oxford, King’s College London and the University of Bedfordshire, have been developing evaluative tools that can be used across the sector and are currently being piloted at another four institutions.

The principal method is a tracking mechanism using student data held by institutions. The evidence we have already gathered suggests that where there are differential outcomes in relation to retention, completion, achievement of a “good” degree (2:1 or a first) and graduate employment outcomes, those that receive financial support do at least as well as those from household income backgrounds that are just above the cut-off for eligibility and those from “average” family income backgrounds. In other words, receipt of financial support closes the gap between poorer students and their better-off peers.

The Office for Fair Access has funded this research with the intention that all institutions will be required to use these tools to evaluate the effectiveness of their support packages in access agreement reporting. Where this support isn’t shown to be working, support packages can be refocused, or the income can be redirected to outreach work. One problem, correctly identified in the recent Offa report (14 July), is that many institutions are not evaluating either their financial support or outreach work; other evidence suggests that where institutions are evaluating access spend, this isn’t being done in a coherent or comparable manner sufficient to produce an evidence base. The adoption of common, sectorrelevant tools and evaluation methodologies can only help us all to understand the best and most appropriate ways to not only attract talented individuals into higher education but also to make sure they are supported throughout their studies.

Colin McCaig
Sheffield Hallam University

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