Lee Elliot Major and Sophie Maddocks on the background to today’s Evaluating Access report.

The Government’s call to double the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds enrolling onto degrees by 2020 has put further pressure on universities to show that their efforts to widen access are paying off. The latest UCAS figures today reveal some progress has been made, yet the most advantaged young people in England are still 6.3 times more likely to go to a prestigious university than the least advantaged. The latest Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report urges even more ambitious targets to improve the country’s low social mobility levels.

Universities in England spend over £120 million a year on outreach programmes. Much of this is spent on bursaries and fee waivers, but other schemes include residential summer schools, mentoring schemes, tutoring, teacher engagement, parental support, information campaigns and more.

Yet for all this effort, our seats of learning have a glaring Achilles heel. There is a serious lack of robust evidence indicating which particular strategies have worked best. In this most high profile of social mobility frontiers, we have been effectively operating in the dark. For all we know much of the work could be damaging prospects rather than improving them. The Sutton Trust publishes a report today that aims to shine a new light on this important area. It is the first ever review of the most promising research from Britain and the United States on university access work. The good news is that there is strong evidence that outreach activities, in general, do succeed in attracting and admitting students from non-privileged backgrounds. The bad news is that there is a paucity of evidence identifying which particular initiatives work.

Our review provides some initial pointers to the programmes that appear to be effective in enticing talented young people from disadvantaged homes into higher education. The summary below is likely to confirm the instincts of the most experienced practitioners in this field, but will also question some of the received wisdom about the most popular strategies.

The best outreach strategies:

  • Personalised application information and assistance
  • Multi-year combined interventions
  • Residential programmes
  • Tutoring
  • Mentoring
  • What makes effective outreach?
  • Intervening early
  • Improving academy attainment
  • Working closely with parents
  • Involving teachers
  • Combining several strategies into one longitudinal programme

However the report is really only a start: we call on universities to dedicate a significant proportion of their budgets and collaborate to undertake urgently needed rigorous evaluations of their work. We hope that our report have the same catalytic effect as our Sutton Trust pupil premium toolkit did for schools. Produced five years ago to help guide teachers on how to spend their money for disadvantaged pupils, the toolkit now underpins the work of our sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation. It has been used by two-thirds of school leaders.

We urge the Government to support our efforts to embrace evidence in university access as they have done on school attainment. Let’s hope the proportion of disadvantaged students has doubled by 2020; but the real dream is that five years from now universities can cite their own evidence to demonstrate which programmes helped us to deliver on this challenging target.


Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07834 461 299.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news