Universities have been urged to allocate 10 per cent of their outreach budgets to evaluative studies as an analysis triggers warnings that some of the £125 million spent annually on the activity could be going to waste.
A paper published by the Sutton Trust on 17 December highlights the lack of robust evidence about the efficacy of initiatives designed to widen access to higher education – in particular, it notes the paucity of randomised trials with a control group.
The charity will next year launch a research programme to measure the effectiveness of outreach activities, in partnership with the Office for Fair Access. But it argues that institutions need to increase their spending on evaluation, too, even if this means reducing the funds available for tackling disadvantage in the short term.
Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said that universities had to spend more on evaluation to eradicate the possibility that some outreach activities were a “waste of money”.
“Everyone wants to help the children from disadvantaged and non-privileged backgrounds that we are trying to help, but we don’t know whether all this hard work that is being done is actually having an impact or not, so I think this has to be money well spent,” Dr Elliot Major said.
“It is immoral in many ways not to have some evidence of the impact of what we are trying to do.”
The Sutton Trust paper, based on research by Carole Torgerson, professor of education at Durham University, surveys what evidence there is. On this basis, it suggests that the most effective outreach strategies appear to be personalised application information and assistance for applicants, residential programmes and mentoring, or a mix of interventions.
On the question of whether bursaries help to widen access – let alone whether they improve retention – Professor Torgerson finds that the evidence is more mixed. English institutions are set to spend £440.9 million on financial support for students this year, on top of the £124.5 million outreach budget.
“I do worry that these budgets will come under attack within universities and in the public arena more generally if we don’t show they are working properly,” Dr Elliot Major added.