It has been applied to everything from reducing levels of smoking to reminding people that they need to fill in their tax returns on time. Now new research suggests that “nudge theory” can also help to widen access to highly selective universities.
A study conducted by the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team, colloquially known as the Nudge Unit, found that teenagers who received personalised letters from current students were significantly more likely to apply to a large research-intensive institution in the Russell Group than those who did not. They were also more likely to receive an offer from one of the mission group’s 24 members.
The results add to the growing body of evidence that indicates that insights from behavioural psychology can be utilised to encourage people to make more positive life choices, and that such interventions have potential applications in higher education.
In the UK study, a randomised controlled trial was conducted over three years involving 11,104 high-achieving students spread across 300 schools, who were all about to take their GCSE exams. Schools were assigned at random to one of four interventions. In the first, the selected students received a hand-signed letter from a current student at the University of Bristol, stating, according to the study, “that different universities offer different opportunities, that employers care which university you go to, and that more selective universities can actually be cheaper for students from low income families than less selective universities”.
In the second intervention, students received a similar letter from another Bristol student, which was delivered to their home address. In the third, students received both letters, and there was also a control group.
While the researchers found that receiving a single letter did increase the rate at which students applied to and were accepted by Russell Group universities, the results were not statistically significant. However, students who received both letters were significantly more likely to apply to a Russell Group institution (23.2 per cent did so, compared with 19.9 per cent in the control group), and to be accepted (11.4 per cent versus 8.5 per cent).
Overall, it was estimated that 222 additional young people took up a place at a Russell Group university as a result of the trial, at a total cost to the Department for Education of approximately £10,000, or £45 per student.
Anne-Marie Canning, director of widening participation at King’s College London, said that the results built on US research which showed that behavioural insights could help to widen access.
“It’s extremely promising to see evidence forthcoming in a UK context,” she said. “This report could have significant impact on widening participation practice as interventions based on behavioural insights are often affordable and scalable.”
A separate study at King’s is exploring whether nudge theory can help to improve the student experience of disadvantaged learners.