The higher education sector is yet to establish a clear model for success to boost attendance of the most disadvantaged students, according to a report published today by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO).

The TASO commissioned report finds while many activities are positively associated with disadvantaged students’ understanding of and attitudes towards higher education, there is a lack of evidence on what works to increase enrolment.

TASO’s Director (Establishment Phase) Susannah Hume said the report consolidates what has been known for some time about the lack of high-quality evidence on what works in translating aspirations into enrolments.

“If the higher education sector is serious about improving social mobility, we need to act now to fill the gaps identified in this report and refocus efforts on designing and implementing programmes that are proven to work,” said Hume

“That’s why, following guidance from the sector, TASO is commissioning new research into the effectiveness of summer schools, mentoring initiatives and school and college outreach programmes for widening access to higher education.

“By developing more rigorous evidence in these key areas, TASO will be able to better support the sector in ensuring fair access for all students and help facilitate greater social mobility across the UK,” Hume said.

Commenting on the new research, David Robinson, Director of Post-16 and Skills at the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and author of the report, said: “While the higher education sector has made gains in reaching out to students from disadvantaged backgrounds over the last decade, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge of which interventions work best.”

“This report shows that most widening access programmes typically report success in raising poorer students’ aspirations, but there is still little consensus on which interventions are most likely to boost actual student enrolment numbers,” Robinson said.

While an increasing number of young people have progressed to higher education in recent years, the gap in access between poorer and more affluent students remains stark: students from the most affluent areas are more than twice as likely to enter higher education than those from the most deprived areas. For the most selective universities, they are six times more likely. These large gaps persist despite significant investment from the higher education sector in activities to widen access over the last decade.

The detailed report analyses 92 studies that provide evidence of the impact of activities designed to boost the attendance of disadvantaged or underrepresented students. It sets out the gaps in the existing evidence base and outlines recommendations for future research.

Download the full report – ‘The impact of interventions for widening access to higher education’.

What we know about which activities are effective in boosting access to higher education for disadvantaged students?

Student financial aid
• Providing financial aid to boost the attendance of the most disadvantaged is a high-cost intervention that typically generates a small but positive effect on enrolment in higher education. However, most existing studies measuring its impact have been conducted outside of the UK.
• Financial support is most successful when it is easy to understand for students. Increasing potential beneficiaries’ awareness of such support is also key to success.

Mentoring and counselling support
• Approaches that involve providing mentoring, counselling and role model services for students are positively associated with young people’s aspirations and understanding of what studying entails.
• However, there is little evidence on the effectiveness of such activities in generating increases in enrolments in higher education among the most disadvantaged.

Advice and guidance for students 
• Light-touch interventions such as providing information, advice and guidance to students are low-cost, but research to date suggests that such activities have had a limited effect on both students’ aspirations and enrolment into higher education.
• Those that are successful tend to be tailored to the individual needs of students, start early in the student life cycle, and form part of existing careers advice in schools and colleges.

Summer schools
• Summer schools tend to be high-cost interventions, associated with improved student aspirations and higher education progression among participants.
• However, there is currently limited evidence of causality: it is possible that other factors may be leading to improved outcomes, beyond the summer schools.

Wider programmes with multiple elements of support
• Programmes that combine several different approaches to support students are the most evaluated intervention. Research suggests that they lead to considerable increases in student aspirations, and some increases in other outcomes. However, it is difficult to disentangle the individual components of these programmes.
• As these programmes are often expensive, isolating their different elements and improving our understanding of their impact is essential