Who we are

TASO aims to improve lives through evidence-based practice in higher education (HE).

Some groups of students are less likely to enter HE and less likely to succeed on-course if they do attend. These groups include:

  • Students from areas with low rates of HE participation, those from low-income and/or low socioeconomic status backgrounds
  • Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students
  • Mature students
  • Disabled students
  • Care leavers

TASO’s vision is to eliminate equality gaps for disadvantaged and underrepresented groups so that all students have the same chance to:

    • Enter higher education
    • Get a good degree
    • Progress to further study or employment

We do this by bringing the best available evidence to practitioners and by helping produce new evidence on the most effective approaches.

TASO is an affiliate ‘what works’ centre and part of the UK Government’s What Works Movement. This means that TASO is committed to the generation, synthesis and dissemination of high-quality evidence about effective practice in widening participation and student success.

We work closely with the HE sector to:

  • Collate and synthesize existing research and evaluation.
  • Produce tools and resources to help HE providers access this evidence.
  • Identify gaps in the evidence and produce new evidence to fill these gaps. We do this by commissioning evidence reviews and research projects.

State of the evidence

In 2017-18, universities and colleges spent £658.2m on activities to support on-course success and progression to post-HE destinations for disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

But despite the volume of activity taking place, we do not have a good understanding of which approaches are most effective because:

  • There are gaps in the evidence base: for some student groups and activities there is simply not much existing research or evaluation.
  • The existing evidence doesn’t focus on the impact of activities: in some cases, we have evidence on the barriers certain groups face to entering HE, but we have less on the actual impact of activities designed to support these students.
  • The existing evidence doesn’t actually show that the activity has an impact: much existing research and evaluation looks at whether students who take part in some activity have better outcomes than other students who don’t. But this approach doesn’t actually tell us whether an activity is effective.

TASO is working closely with the sector to produce more research and evaluation to address each of these issues.

You can read more about the existing evidence in our evidence toolkit.

What is evaluation in student success?

HE providers must complete ‘Access and Participation Plans’ which set out how they will improve equality of opportunity for disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. These plans are monitored and approved by the HE regulator, the Office for Students.

As part of these plans, HE providers must demonstrate a commitment to ‘impact evaluation’. Impact evaluation focuses on the impact of activities and understanding which approaches are most effective. This is different from other forms of evaluation, such as process evaluation (which focuses on how activities are implemented) or formative evaluation (which aims to strengthen the implementation of an activity). See our evaluation guidance for more details.

The OfS has published ‘Standards of Evidence’ which categorise different types of evidence that can be produced as part of an impact evaluation:

  • Type 1 – Narrative: there is a clear narrative for why we might expect an activity to be effective. This narrative is normally based on the findings of other research or evaluation.
  • Type 2 – Empirical Enquiry: there is data which suggests that an activity is associated with better outcomes for students.
  • Type 3 – Causality: a method is used which demonstrates that an activity has a ‘causal impact’ on outcomes for students.

The difference between Type 2 and Type 3 evidence is important. Type 2 evidence might tell us that students who take part in an activity have better outcomes than other students but Type 3 evidence focuses on ‘causal impact’ which means it tell us whether the activity causes the difference.

The difference between Type 2 and Type 3 evidence is best demonstrated by an example.

If we measure HE applications among students who attend university summer schools, we might find that these students are more likely to apply to university than other students who didn’t attend. This would be Type 2 evidence which shows there is an association between attending a summer school and applying to university.

But this is not type 3 causal evidence because there might be lots of other reasons for the result. For example, just by attending the summer school, participants have shown that they are probably more motivated to attend university than other students. Therefore, we need more sophisticated research methods to provide strong evidence which tells us an activity is truly effective.

TASO’s role is to help the sector produce more Type 3 evidence as this provides us with the best possible understanding of which activities and approaches are most effective.