SHORT-TERM projects to attract students from diverse backgrounds make a university look good but may have little lasting impact, early results of project assessments show.
A study by the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education for the Higher Education Funding Council for England suggests there is a danger that only institutions which have made improving access a central part of their mission will see one-off projects lead to long-term change.
The findings, to be published later this year, could have important implications for the HEFCE, which is considering ways of including an access element in funding.
Dorma Unwin, temporary chair of HEFCE's new committee on widening participation, has said "a substantial" slice of funding needs to go towards boosting access.
Vice-chancellors are divided about whether the money should reward institutions which already have a good access record or help those with plans to improve.
Over the past two years NIACE has examined widening participation projects in 45 universities and colleges, set up under a HEFCE scheme, which set aside Pounds 4.6 million a year for four years for projects to encourage students from more varied backgrounds to go to university. It is due to finish in 1999.
Projects include summer universites for school children, using undergraduates as outreach workers, developing information technology to reach rural areas and producing guidance for students from non-traditional backgrounds.
But early indications are that the four-year projects may not be enough to change the culture of an institution. Stephen McNair, head of research at NIACE, said: "They have transformed things for some students and that is a good thing to do but it wasn't the long-term objective. The question is whether it is the best way of using resources in the long-term."
He said concentrating on making widening participation part of a university's mission may be a more successful way of achieving change. "If all funding levers are driving towards the research assessment exercise and teaching quality and performance indicators are based on A-level grades, then, however keen they are to widen access, some institutions will not have the incentive to do it."
NIACE will present results of the study in October.