Efforts by the UK's most selective universities to woo bright students from poor backgrounds by offering big bursaries have not worked, the government's access chief admitted this week.
An analysis of millions of higher education applications for the Office for Fair Access found that large bursaries offered by elite institutions such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge had no influence on young people's decisions about where to study.
The results prompted Sir Martin Harris, director of fair access, to suggest that the extra money might be better spent on additional outreach work in schools.
If fees rise, radical ideas such as offering low-income students their "first year for free" might be a more effective way to encourage bright students from poor backgrounds to apply to elite universities, Offa has suggested to Lord Browne of Madingley's review of higher education fees and funding.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sir Martin argued that widening participation had been one of the sector's "great success stories", and that part of this success could be attributed to the student support system, including bursaries.
But the research shows that, under the existing system, the size of a bursary does not appear to motivate university applicants to choose one institution over another.
"For many young people, by the time they are 18 their plans about what to do at that age are pretty well set by earlier experiences," Sir Martin said. "Offering somebody, say, £1,000 more at 18 to go to a university where they aren't sure they will be happy is not enough to win them over."
He said that it was more important to ensure that students received the right advice and encouragement earlier on in the education system.
A separate study for Offa published in May found that attempts to widen access to the country's elite institutions have stalled since the mid-2000s.
This is despite significant spending on outreach and generous bursaries for poor students. This autumn, Oxford is offering bursaries of up to £4,100, Cambridge up to £3,400, and Imperial College London is offering £3,500. This compares with a sector-wide average of £980 for the poorest students in 2008-09.
Sir Martin said the idea of a "first year for free" scheme for low-income students was "quite exciting". The idea was worth trialling, he argued, as it could help to convince a young person who was "worried about the risk in personal and social as well as financial terms" of studying at a particular institution.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said previous research by his organisation showed that the bursary system played no part in achieving fair access.
He praised Offa for "changing policy in the light of the research findings". But he added that it was "slightly worrying" that Offa "now appears to be saying that institutional bursaries should be replaced by institutional fee waivers. It is all exactly the same money going to exactly the same people and will have exactly the same effect."
Mr Bekhradnia argued that it would be more logical to have a national bursary scheme with national maintenance grants and nationally provided loans repaid through the tax system.
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