HEFCE announces drive to ensure students from diverse backgrounds succeed in higher education

Record levels of people from lower-income families are now entering higher education. Similarly, the numbers of students with disabilities, and from black or ethnic minority groups, are continuing to increase. However, these groups still underachieve in terms of degree results, progression into further study and graduate-level employment.

The Prime Minister has set a target to double the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education by 2020. In addition, there are increasing numbers of students with disabilities, particularly mental health problems.

Universities and colleges are making progress on access and retention, but there is a lack of detailed evidence about which interventions achieve the best results for different groups of students. As student demand for support grows, but government funding for such support reduces, it becomes increasingly important to understand which interventions work in which contexts.

In response, HEFCE has commissioned five reports, which are now published [Note 1]. They examine the reasons why different groups of students achieve different outcomes. They review provision and support for students with disabilities, and identify issues that will need to be addressed. They also put forward an evaluation framework to help assess how well different interventions work. If adopted, the reports’ findings will influence the ways Student Opportunity funding [Note 2] may be targeted and used in the future, and how the outcomes and impact from this can be demonstrated [Note 3].

Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, said:

‘Universities and colleges have already made significant progress in terms of widening access and improving retention for students whose talents and skills risk being overlooked.

‘To build on this success to date, we should now focus on establishing which interventions are working most effectively to educate the graduates the country needs.

‘HEFCE will work with universities and colleges to implement methods to evaluate what kinds of activities work best across the whole student lifecycle and into employment.

‘We are already funding pilot projects to measure learning gain, and also taking steps to improve understanding of how to increase social capital.

‘This work will feed into plans for Quality Assessment and the Teaching Excellence Framework.’


1. The five reports are:

2. The Student Opportunity allocation is the main way HEFCE supports widening participation. The total grant for 2014-15 was £357,363,749. Of this:

  • £67,111,833 was allocated to the additional costs of recruiting and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • £15,299,717 for students with disabilities
  • £274,952,199 to retain students who may be less likely to continue their studies.

3. ‘Delivering opportunities for students and maximising their success: evidence for policy and practice 2015-2020’ (HEFCE 2015/14).

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