More evidence is needed to measure the impact of efforts by universities to widen participation, a new review has found.
The Education Policy Institute concluded that there was “still a lack of available evidence on the impact of outreach interventions on actual enrolment rates”.
Although disadvantaged pupils are now 61 per cent more likely to go to university than they were a decade ago, the richest youngsters are still 2.3 times more likely to enter higher education.
But the EPI warned today that existing evidence on the impact of outreach schemes tends to focus on “immediate” outcomes, like increased aspirations and awareness, “which may not always translate into actual enrolments”.
The review warns of an “urgent need to go beyond student perceptions and establish the impact of these activities on enrolment numbers”.
The EPI looked at 92 studies that provide evidence of the impact of outreach interventions on a broad range of outcomes, including aspirations towards, awareness of, and progression to university for disadvantaged or underrepresented students.
Most of the studies found “positive but modest effects”.
According to the review, much of the existing evidence is concentrated on students in their final years of secondary school and post-16 learners, particularly A-level pupils. But there is a lack of evidence on the impact of interventions that happen when pupils are younger.
Most widening participation initiatives analysed “were black box interventions combining several outreach components”. Such interventions “seem to be associated with improvements in higher education outcomes”, the review found.
However, drawing definitive conclusions on the effectiveness of the single components is “challenging”.
The review also found that providing financial aid to disadvantaged students is “a high-cost widening participation intervention that has a small but positive effect on enrolment”.
“The literature suggests that financial support is most successful when it is relatively easy to understand and apply for and efforts are made to raise awareness amongst potential beneficiaries.”
One “low-cost, light-touch” tool to widen participation is the provision of information, advice and guidance to underrepresented students during secondary school.
The more promising interventions are those that are tailored to the students, start early and are integrated into other forms of support, such as career advice and guidance, the review found.
Summer schools are a more high-cost intervention, but “appear to be positively correlated with an increase in confidence and aspirations”, though evidence on their effects on application to and acceptance by higher education institutions “shows mixed results”.
David Robinson, the EPI’s director of post-16 and skills, who wrote 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.”