“Universities should focus on schools not spend money on bursaries” leading academics respond to OFFA report

Leading academic experts in widening access to higher education say universities should help poor students do better at school rather than invest in bursaries.

Responding to OFFA’s report on how well universities are doing on improving fair access for disadvantaged students, academics from the LSE, Cambridge University and the Institute of Education say although we know poorer pupils who underachieve at school are held back from getting to university, there isn’t clear evidence that offering student bursaries makes much difference.

Dr Gill Wyness and Dr John Jerrim, Institute of Education, University of London:

“Studies show achievement in secondary school is the most important reason why more children from the poorest backgrounds don’t go to university, including selective institutions like Oxford and Cambridge.

This holds true both in England and around the world, including Canada and the United States.

What is very much more pronounced is the very high rates of participation of children of parents who themselves went to university. Those children are substantially more likely to go to university than children from families who didn’t get degrees, whatever their school achievement.

Even when university fees were £3,000 per year, family background differences in university access in England were just as big as in the United States where fees are higher.

Universities are under pressure from OFFA to improve access to university for students from poorer backgrounds, and bursaries are one of their main strategies for attracting poorer students. However,we know very little as to whether bursaries are improving access in the UK.

OFFA’s own research in this area is welcome. Its recent study suggests there is no obvious evidence bursaries stop disadvantaged students from dropping out, but far more research is needed to help universities decide how to improve access.”

Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge:

“Poor students are less likely to go to university largely because they have lower prior achievement at school, rather than because of tuition fees. This does not mean that universities have no role to play. Universities can help schools provide better guidance to their students, provide them with clearer information about financial matters, raise their aspirations and make better subject choices.”

Nicholas Barr, Professor of Public Economics,London School of Economics:

“Widening participation is enormously important, both for social justice and because in today’s world a country cannot afford to waste talent.

The evidence is now powerful that the main barrier to participation is not doing well in school. A person with good A levels is highly likely to go to university whatever his or her social background.

Thus the most important part of OFFA’s remit is not bursaries for people who have applied to university or are already there, but encouraging action by universities to help people at school – activities like student mentoring, weekend schools, visit days to help them see the point of applying to university and hence make it more likely they will carry on to A levels.”

A reminder: OFFA itself published research results earlier this year “There is no obvious evidence bursaries stop disadvantaged students from dropping out.” You can read that press release on the EMC website here.

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