Les Ebdon, the university access tsar, has called for institutions to spend less on bursaries for poor students after a study found that they have no observable effect on dropout rates.
According to the report by the Office for Fair Access published on 6 March, neither the size nor the availability of a bursary had a discernible effect on whether a student from a poor background would finish a course or not.
The study Do Bursaries Have Any Effect on Retention?, which looked at dropout rates when tuition fees were about £3,000 a year, says continuation rates were broadly similar whether poor students received more than £1,060 a year in bursaries or less than £700 a year.
However, A-level grades and family income were factors that influenced dropout rates, the report says.
Professor Ebdon, the director of fair access to higher education, said that the report, which covers the period between 2006-07 and 2010-11, provides “powerful new evidence” that universities should spend money on expanding their outreach work with schools rather than on students themselves.
“This new piece of Offa analysis shows that bursaries may not be the powerful retention tool that many currently believe them to be,” said Professor Ebdon. He urged universities to take the report into account when drawing up their access agreements for 2015-16, when institutions in England will spend about £600 million on financial support for students, outreach and services to improve retention.
“We will be encouraging them to rebalance their investment towards both targeted [and] sustained activities that raise attainment and aspirations and activities that support students in successfully continuing their studies and progressing to employment or postgraduate study,” Professor Ebdon said.
The call to shift spending away from direct cash support for poor students could prove controversial as severe cutbacks have already been announced by the government.
In November, it was announced that the £150 million National Scholarship Programme, which provides awards worth £3,000 a year, would be reduced by £100 million in 2014-15, while last month’s grant letter announced the end of the £37 million Access to Learning Fund, which provides discretionary grants to poor students.
Professor Ebdon’s failure to speak out against these cuts to student support has prompted criticism, with Geoff Layer, vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, calling for Offa to start “standing up for students”.
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, criticised Professor Ebdon’s call to scale back bursary support for the poorest students.
“It is concerning that Offa is making recommendations like this because we know the financial package provided to students is nowhere near enough,” Ms Wenstone said.
She said the recommendation did not take into consideration the different circumstances of institutions, many of which already had a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and did not need to spend as much on outreach.
“You cannot look at the sector as a whole in this way – you need to look at individual circumstances,” she said.