Widening Participation – Outreach versus Bursaries

This morning I came across a University of Sussex News Item which explains that Sussex has made the shortlist, published today (Thursday 5 September), for Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2013.  This piece reminded me of a discussion I had a while ago about the whole approach to widening participation in University education, an issue made all the more serious by the introduction of £9K a year tuition fees. In particular

The University has increased spending on widening participation activities to £8.1 million a year, with over half of this spent on the innovative First Generation Scholars scheme, which supports students who are from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their family to go to university.

Before commenting on this in any detail I should put my cards on the table. When I went to University in 1982 I was the first in my family ever to go to university. I’m also, at least as far as my immediate family goes, the last. However, in those days there was no need for a First Generation Scholars scheme: there were no tuition fees and, because I don’t come from a wealthy background, I qualified for a full maintenance grant. Life (in Cambridge) as an undergraduate student was fairly comfortable.

Times have changed a lot. Many more people go to university nowadays, but the price is that support for those who don’t have access to family funds is now spread very thinly.  There are no full maintenance grants, and the fees are very high. Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have been the tuition fees that might have deterred me from going to university. After all, they don’t have to be paid back until after graduation, and when one’s income exceeds a certain level. What would have made a difference would have been the withdrawal of maintenance. Without the grant, I simply wouldn’t have been able to study without getting a job. Apart from the amount of work involved in doing my degree, the recession of the early 1980s meant that jobs were very hard to come by.

To get back to the news item I mentioned earlier, I have always thought there is a tricky calculation to be made when it comes to designing programmes intended to encourage students from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible to come to university, whether that be to do with socio-economic considerations, gender, ethnicity, age or anything else. The question is whether pumping money into bursaries is actually effective. I can imagine that a large bursary, perhaps equivalent in money terms to the old maintenance grant, would genuinely influence the decision of a prospective student, but if the pot is shared out among very many people the resulting bursaries are fairly modest. How much does a bursary have to be to make a difference? Answers on a postcard.

The other side of the debate is what the balance should be between bursaries and outreach. In a subject like Physics one of the principal obstacles faced by pupils from the state sector is the dire shortage of physics teachers as well as the lack of laboratory facilities in schools. Here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex we have a very large (and growing) outreach programme which includes giving kids from local schools the chance to come into our building and do specially designed experiments in a laboratory set aside for the purpose.  This kind of activity is intended to get those of school age thinking about doing Physics or Astronomy, which they might not otherwise do.

I don’t see bursaries and outreach as mutually exclusive approaches to  the goal of widening participation. It’s more a question of the balance. How do we decide how to allocate resources? Is there research on the effectiveness of different programmes?

As always, comments are welcome via the box below!


11 Responses to “Widening Participation – Outreach versus Bursaries”

  1. I started my foundation year in 2009 and get 2k per year from the university for being from a lower income background and first generation scholar. I remember emailing comments to the registrar when the draft WP access agreement was shown to us saying it was madness they were giving the new intake less and acting like this was something to be proud of.

    I do a lot of outreach in the department and I’d like to see a (possibly SEPNet wide) scheme where gifted kids that do outreach from us from lower income backgrounds can ‘opt in’ to a scheme where they got stuff like lab tours, days out to museums, HESS, priority for work experience placements, are on an email list/Facebook group to chat to one another -and, in the end, possibly a bursary to come and do physics at one of the SEPNet institutions, possibly on the condition that they too did outreach or summer research.

    That’s the sort of scheme that would give direct and measurable results, as well as keeping gifted kids feeling like they could (and should) go to university and do something as amazing as spending three years studying the universe, from quarks to galaxies to everything in between.

    • I guess they wanted to help more people, but the result is that they help each of them less – I don’t know what the right balance is!

  2. Thoughtful comments. I think its less of a balance, more making sure that different opportunities are in place. Outreach is clearly very good at sparking interest in children, but to widen participation I think it has go much further. It needs to ensure that both the child and the child’s family perceive University as a viable and affordable option, one that will benefit the child later in their life. Engaging families and teachers in outreach and widening participation activities should also be important to raise everyone’s expectations.

    I don’t know so much about bursaries but clearly to make University affordable to all, then financial support must match the costs faced. Either that or do we reduce student numbers or strengthen local HE institutes so that students don’t have to travel as far?

  3. The position is actually clear for physics. Essentially everyone (of order 98%) of those who get physics A-level go to university anyway so, in physics terms, bursaries are entirely useless for WP. Consequently, any outreach should be intelligent and evidence based (not always easy) and focused on getting more students to do A-level physics, something that universities are not necessarily good at. Of the research that exists, there is no evidence that outreach activities actually leads to anyone choosing physics – the factors are more likely to do with parental background and atttitudes and, crucially, the quality of teaching. For girls, there will also be the school ethos. Those are the factors we should try to change.

    • telescoper Says:

      Another thing I should have said is that most of us physicists who do outreach just want to get more people interested in physics. As a physicist I think it’s good to encourage more people into the discipline regardless of where they end up studying. This is a slightly different emphasis from some university programmes that are primarily aimed at recruitment to their own institution, which is not the same thing at all…

    • Loretta Dunne Says:

      HI Peter, that may be true but actually there are people who don’t study physics A-level but later go on to do physics through a foundation route. The reason for not doing physics in the first place can also be connected to the socio-economic situation of the students. Physics is seen as a bit of a ‘high-brow’ or ‘geeky’ subject, not necessarily something people with lower confidence see themselves able to do. Not all schools have qualified teachers (especially lower performing state schools) and in particular girls don’t seem to be taking it in enough numbers. I taught foundation physics in Notts and the cohort was very much that a WP scheme would be targeting. Funding such schemes would be in my mind the best WP we could do, it gives people that second chance – and a few years on from leaving school is a better time for many to have the maturity required for study. Those who already get good A-level physics are already ‘selected’ to be those from largely middle class families with prior Uni attendance. BTW, I too was a first in family student in the 1990’s and without the maintenance grant (then being phased out) I would not have been able to attend at all.

      • We have a foundation programme at Sussex too (in both Mathematics and Physics & Astronomy), and some very good students come through it. An unfortunate side-effect of this is that if we take students into our degree programmes through this route we get penalized in the league tables because it affects our entry tariff. I’m not convinced that students learn anything useful from Physics A-level either, so I’d prefer to be able to admit students who have done Mathematics but not Physics anyway…

  4. The 1998–2012 student loans system was actually pretty good. Loans covered student fees and maintenance, and were linked to inflation or the BoE base rate + 1%, whichever was lower. That makes them essentially free to borrow, and a period of high inflation above the Bank of England base rate can even wipe them out.

    Repayments come out of income above a certain amount, leaving little pressure to ever pay them off. That doesn’t eliminate the -cost- of going to university, but it did eliminate the cost of having the opportunity to go to university if you came from a poor background.

    For anyone with one of these loans, it’s undoubtedly the best loan they will ever get in their lives. There were even further balancing mechanisms: students with higher earning parents received less of a maintenance loan (their parents were expected to make up the difference), while students of poorer backgrounds had their fees covered. (I was one such student – the government paid all my university fees, and allowed me to borrow the full maintenance grant.)

    The situation is very different now. The interest rates of a new student loan are set at the rate of inflation, plus a percentage that can grow as high as 3% – these -loans- cost money, not just going to university. The student fees have grown enormously. Very few graduates with post-2012 loans will ever pay them back out of their earnings. Students whose parents can afford to pay off these loans early, or pay their maintenance and tuition directly, will have huge advantages – students pay a lot more to go to university, and if you aren’t from a wealthy background, costs are higher still.

    I don’t have any insight on how much a bursary should be, but their existence is far more important than it used to be.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I understand that point. But the debts are so large that a thousand or so here and there seems to me to be unlikely to have much effect. And if bursaries are large enough to make a real qualitative difference then the number who benefit is likely to be very small.

      All I can say is that I’m glad I’m not young.

  5. Everything that Loretta and Peter say is true. Essentially we have to find a way either to swell the A-level pool (and the IOP has several projects to do that) or find other routes in for those that do not have the right A-levels. Peter is correct about the iniquitous effect of the league tables, in schools and universities in fact, so one possible project would be to find a way aroiund that. Another point to note is that a number of new physics degrees have just been, or are in the process of being, introduced in universities that draw more of their students from the locality than is typical for universities with physics departments, so it might be possible to work with them to find new routes.

    Incidentally, does anyone know of a physics departments that matches grades to schools, i.e. lower grades if the academic achievement of the school is weak?

    • telescoper Says:

      One thing about the league tables would be to persuade those that compile them to do “value added” properly…the current methods are clearly a joke. Since Oxbridge colleges cream off the top A-level students, how can there be any “added value”. Indeed, surely one would expect all of their graduates to get first class degrees?

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