Fair access is beyond price

Big bursaries are not enticing the poor into elite institutions; targeted outreach may be an answer, says Sir Martin Harris

September 23, 2010

The research published today by the Office for Fair Access will surprise many. Can it be true that young people are not always influenced primarily by money?

But the finding is unequivocal - disadvantaged young people have not been influenced by the size of bursary on offer when deciding which university to attend. It is a finding that raises important questions about how successfully financial support can affect applicant decision-making. But to understand its full significance, we need first to look at the original policy intention behind the creation of institutional bursaries.

When higher fees were introduced, there was a genuine fear that young people from poor backgrounds would be deterred from higher education on financial grounds.

To ensure that this did not happen, comparatively generous support for such students was put together, consisting of both government grants and loans, and bursaries from individual universities.

The intention was that above a prescribed minimum, bursaries should vary from one university to another. In particular, it was intended that more selective institutions should offer higher bursaries to encourage poor but well-qualified young people to apply to them in greater numbers. No one at the time doubted that this would happen.

The research published today by Offa now enables us to understand what has actually happened.

First and foremost, it is clear that the primary fear - that poor students would be put off by higher fees - has simply not materialised. Present fee levels coupled with student support arrangements, including bursaries, are seen by students to be justified by the putative educational, social and financial advantages of higher education.

Second, the widening participation agenda has been a striking success, particularly over the past five years or so. But although the present system has served the widening participation agenda extremely well, it has not done the same for the fair access agenda of encouraging more disadvantaged young people to apply to selective universities.

As my report on access to highly selective universities, published in May, made clear, bright but poor young people may be less able to enter the pool of candidates for selective universities for a wide range of reasons.

These include the school or college they attended, the range of subjects they were able to study, especially at 14 (for example, single sciences or modern languages), the advice and guidance available to them and peer pressure to go to the same institution as friends.

However, one might have thought that the bursaries regime at 18 would, as the scheme's architects originally hoped, help address this situation.

Sadly not, it seems. While there is variation in the bursaries on offer, our latest research, Have Bursaries Influenced Choice between Universities?, shows that young people are no more likely to apply to, or to accept offers from, institutions offering a higher bursary than before the introduction of bursaries.

Instead, they are overwhelmingly influenced by other more traditional factors such as the academic standing of a course or the distance of a university from their home.

Given this new, very clear information and given the importance of access to selective universities in promoting greater social mobility, we need to ask whether institutional funds are being best targeted under the present system.

I say "present" because much may change as a result of the forthcoming recommendations of the Browne review and subsequent government policy.

In the future, really radical proposals, such as a total fee waiver for one year or much higher bursaries for the most disadvantaged, may well be appropriate but, given that a new student finance system is unlikely to be up and running before 2012-13, they are a good two years away from being implemented.

In the meantime, we will be encouraging selective universities to look at their own experience and consider whether money intended to create fairer access is best spent on higher bursaries.

The evidence is now piling up that working in highly targeted ways with schools and colleges to identify and guide appropriate young people much earlier is a more effective approach.

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