Can students from widening participation backgrounds’ financial wellbeing and progression at university be improved through a light-touch text message intervention?


The transition into higher education represents a time where many individuals experience financial independence for the first time. In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, student maintenance loans are paid just three times a year presenting a considerable challenge for smoothing consumption across an extended time period. A survey commissioned by NatWest (2020) suggested that almost half of their 3,604 respondents (43%) had run out of money by the end of the term, and one in three (32%) had used their overdraft to cover essentials like rent and household bills.

This difficulty smoothing consumption may be more pertinent for widening participation groups leading to greater levels of debt and reduced wellbeing which may contribute to increased rates of drop-out and lower performance. Of course, greater loans, grants, scholarships and bursaries targeted at those who need them most may be beneficial, but these may not always be affordable to provide or accessible to the large number of students who could benefit from them. Therefore, we propose a light-touch and inexpensive text message intervention aimed at improving the financial wellbeing of students from widening participation groups.

What would participation involve for students at my university? 

Below we outline the process of being involved in the study from a student’s perspective:

  1. Receive email from university about the study and decide whether or not to participate.
  2. Complete the baseline survey. This will include questions on financial management, financial wellbeing, mental wellbeing (not diagnostic), and some questions on what funding sources participants use to meet the cost of living, level of personal debt, and consideration of financial concerns when deciding to come to university. Participants will consent to their university sharing information about them, including their mobile number.
  3. Participants will be randomised to the control (no text message) or treatment (text message). In the treatment group, a text message will be sent once a week for ten weeks. Messages may include: “We’re now getting into the term properly. To make sure your loans and bursary last to the end of term, why not create a budget if you haven’t already using the UCAS budget tool.” Or “If it looks like you’re running out of money, don’t wait to seek help. Talk to the National Association of Student Money Advisers at your university and see what help might be available.” Messages can be tailored to the resources provided at your specific university.
  4. Receive email from university about the follow-up survey (if consented). This will include the same measures as the baseline but will also ask about the level of personal debt, whether participants work part time, the number of hours and the self-perceived impact on university attendance as well as whether they have considered leaving their course due to financial reasons.
  5. Participants will consent to their university sharing personal data with King’s College London as part of the baseline survey and will receive a debrief following the final survey. At this point those in the control group will have access to the messages sent to the treatment group.

What would participation involve for universities?

There are two activities which participating universities would be required to do:

  1. Send the invitation email to eligible students (and the follow-up email to those who consent to receive a second email).
  • King’s can help draft this email
  • It will include a brief summary of the study, link to the study, relevant information about the lottery prize draw, link to further information, reference that this is a King’s study.

2. Share data, as consented to by participants, with the research team.

  • We will ask participating students if they consent to data about them being shared with King’s. What exactly this data will be clear to students.
  • Following the baseline survey, we would require mobile numbers for those randomised to the treatment condition who have also consented to the university sharing this information (provided late September).
  • Following the follow-up survey, we would require details on, for example, widening participation status and progression to the second term, again, as consented to by students (provided end of January).

What are the benefits of taking part?

For universities, this is a chance to gain a better insight into the financial wellbeing of widening participation students. It also demonstrates a proactive step to trying to improve the outcomes of such students.

Students who participate will have the option to provide their email addresses for the purpose of entering a lottery to win a monetary prize voucher (amount and voucher type TBD). Additionally, if the treatment is effective, students may benefit from improved financial wellbeing (students in the control will be offered the same materials at the end of the trial).

Which students are eligible?

We would be looking for participating universities to send the ‘invitation to participate email’ to students who meet the following criteria at their university

Home fee paying studentsDue to EU and international students being ineligible for maintenance loans
UndergraduatesIn order to keep the funding sources available similar (i.e. postgraduate loans have a different structure)
From a widening participation background

(for example: individuals with a disability, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, some ethnic minorities, mature students, young care leavers, and first-generation university attendees.)
There is reason to think that many of these individuals may be worse affected by financial difficulties than the general student population.
Consented to email list they are contacted throughStudents should have previously consented to receiving emails from the email address the study invite is sent through


What is the timeline?

University collaboration discussions and onboarding (including agreements on data sharing).July – August 2021
Finalise email, surveys and messages. Sign-off on them from participating universities.August – Early September 2021
Participating universities determine eligible participants and send invitation emails.Late September 2021
Randomisation to treatment and control occurs and King’s send a list of mobile numbers needed to participating universities (only for students who consented).Late September 2021
Participating universities send mobile numbers to King’s. Late September 2021
Text messages are sent to the treatment group.Early October to mid December 2021
Participating universities send follow-up emails.Mid December 2021 (following final text message)
King’s send a list of participants who consented to their university sharing data with King’s to the participating university. Early January 2022
Participating university share agreed upon data with King’sBy end of January 2022
King’s conduct the analysisFebruary 2022
King’s share top level findings with participating universitiesMarch 2022
King’s write up into a paper for journal submission
TASO, WWCSC and participating universities review as required before submission to academic journals (as appropriate).
April 2022


Who is running this research?

The research is a collaboration between King’s College London, What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC) and Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO).

The research will be written into the PhD thesis of Emma Stockdale (under the supervision of Dr Michael Sanders) and into an academic paper for submission to a journal. The research may also be written into blogs, articles and used in conference proceedings by WWCSC, King’s, TASO and participating universities.

I am interested in my university being involved

Great news! We would love to discuss the study with you in more detail and answer any questions you may have. You can get in touch by emailing Emma Stockdale: