The university access watchdog has commissioned a research team led by Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Education and Inclusion Research to look at how, and to what extent, financial support helps students to stay on their courses, achieve a good degree and gain a graduate job.
Researchers on the team, which includes staff from the universities of Oxford and Bedfordshire, the University of the West of England, King’s College London and the National Union of Students, will develop a set of evaluation measures and survey questions that will be used in a pilot study at different institutions throughout 2016-17.
The project’s findings will be used by Offa to inform its guidance to universities as it prepares access agreements from 2017-18 onwards.
Offa’s director, Les Ebdon, has previously called on institutions to spend less on bursaries for their students after a study in 2014 found they had no observable effect on dropout rates.
Professor Ebdon said that the study – which tracked the destinations of students paying £3,000 a year in tuition fees between 2006 and 2011 – showed that universities should divert more resources towards school outreach work to recruit bright students from poorer backgrounds.
However, the call to scale back support for poorer students was criticised by the NUS, which said the “financial package provided to students is nowhere near enough”.
Overall, institutions spent £435.7 million on financial support for students in 2013-14 using part of the £2.2 billion generated in higher fee income from tuition fees above £6,000, according to Offa’s latest annual report.
However, that amount is predicted to decline slightly after 2015-16 as universities devote a larger portion of higher fee income to outreach and other activities, the report states.
Launching the new study, Ebdon said there is a “pressing need for more evidence about the role of financial support in supporting disadvantaged students”.
“Universities and colleges give substantial amounts of bursaries and scholarships to students each year, and more evidence about impact will help them to be sure they use that investment to best effect,” he added.