Mapping the Evidence

Mapping the Evidence

This is an abridged extract from the main Pound in Your Pocket literature review ‘Mapping the Evidence’, available for download online. For the purposes of this summary report, we have removed citations to the evidence, but the full review cites around 120 separate sources of evidence that were considered.

The systems for funding further education (FE) and higher education (HE) have been subject to substantial change and major review, and the different financial support measures available to students, whether 16 to 18 years old or older, have also undergone or are continuing to undergo significant change and review.

These changes are set within a context of:

  • the planned raising of the participation age from 16 to 17 in 2013 and thereafter to 18 in 2015;
  • highest ever participation rates for 16, 17 and 18 year olds (of 96.1, 76.1 and 48.8 per cent respectively, as of end 2010);
  • increasing and widening participation in higher education;
  • 1.04 million unemployed 16 to 24 year olds, highest ever youth (16 to 24) unemployment of 22.5 per cent (November 2011 to January 2012) since start of comparable data in 1992;

  • the 2011 Review of Vocational Education by Professor Alison Wolf;
  • the overall FE and skills resource budget reducing by 25 per cent between the financial years of 2011/12 and 2014/15;
  • the Government’s stated principle, as set out in its two 2010 strategy documents Skills for Sustainable Growth and Investing in Skills for Sustainable Growth, that those who benefit more should contribute more to the cost of their learning.
  • a further shift in responsibility of the cost of higher education from the state to the individual; and
  • an increase in the maximum annual tuition fee to £9,000 for students entering HE in 2012/13.

The aim of the review was to map the current available evidence relating to student financial support in further and higher education in England (excluding support for fees) and thereby to contribute to the evidence base NUS are developing in order to make policy recommendations in the area. Having reviewed the scope of evidence we highlight a number of perceived gaps in the literature making a number of suggestions for further research along with other conclusions and implications for policy.

Higher Education

1. Overall, the level and type of financial support available for students can play a significant role in the choices, experience and eventual outcomes for students in higher education. The current system suffers largely from the complexity of the eligibility rules, the inconsistency of bursaries (in terms of number, value and eligibility) between different institutions and the resultant lack of knowledge that students and potential students have about the support available (or not), and thus their ability to make well-informed financial planning decisions relating to their ability to meet their costs of study and living (whilst studying), and the longer term impacts of student debt.

2. However, the evidence to date suggests that, so far (up until 2009 entry) this current system has not actively discouraged students from participating in higher education. What is clear is that concern of incurring debt is one element of a ‘cost/benefit’ consideration that potential students undertake as part of the decision process for higher education.

3. One theory suggests that there are two main ‘rules’ that students approaching higher education apply, which are that the eventual benefits will outweigh the costs, and that the student has the means to pay when the money is needed. The fact that there has been no decrease in applications as tuition fees have increased up until 2009 entry and in that timescale, there has been no reverse, at least, of any gains in widening participation suggests that the system in place has broadly met these criteria.

4. However, with the further changes in the upcoming 2012/13 academic year, there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case, and the extent to which the system has been effective for different groups of students equally has not been fully explored.

5. Therefore there needs to be further quantitative and longitudinal evidence on the extent to which the eventual benefits of attending higher education do outweigh the costs, and whether or not this holds true for some groups of students but not for others.

6. It is evident that fear of debt and levels of support have some effect on choice, but further qualitative research needs to be conducted to unpick the complicated role that it plays, and where the balance between student support, debt and perceived benefits of HE lies.

7. We know from the evidence that lower income students are discouraged (or more discouraged) by incurring debt, and can make choices based on this.

8. Research on graduate debt levels suggests different groups of students leave university with different levels of debt. Different contributions to the evidence show that students studying healthcare subjects, disabled students, those whose parents cannot contribute to their support, students from lower social classes, those who had dependent children, and those who lived in their own home or worked during term-time all had a higher level of debt on graduating.

9. This review found limited systematic evidence around funds such as the Access to Learning Fund (ALF), hardship funds and other special support awards that focus on their take-up, use, significance for students and impact within higher education.

10. With regard to evaluating the effectiveness and impact of Hardship Funding and the Access to Learning Fund, there is a need for systematic, rigorous and up-to-date assessments on: awareness and take-up of hardship funding; evidencing the nature and scale of any mismatch between available funding and need; evidence to understand or better understand the circumstances leading to students applying for funding (or not), criteria for assessment, and the extent to which students are turned down or receive less funding than they might otherwise benefit from or use to mitigate higher burdens of debt.

11. There is a paucity of recent detailed evidence relating to other forms of financial support such as the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), Parents’ Learning Allowance (PLA), Childcare Grant (CCG) and Adult Dependants’ Grant (ADG).

12. There was little research evidence specifically looking at support for postgraduate students, and other work published by BIS and NUS confirms this.

13. As with postgraduate study, there has been little research conducted specifically into part-time students generally, and even less relating to financial support. The evidence shows that parttime students are heterogeneous, which can make it difficult to draw any conclusions about the group as a whole.

14. Most of the research into teacher training focuses on factors other than student support, possibly as a result of the previously higher level of student support. There appeared to be no evidence to suggest what effect the changes to teacher training support will bring.

15. The literature on the impact of the Social Work bursary, concluded that it has helped in increasing the number of students studying a social work qualifying programme and also supported some students whose personal and financial circumstances might otherwise have prevented them. They recommend that further research is needed which examines student financing mechanisms for widening socio-economic participation in professional qualifying education that specifically takes into account variations in income and resources.

16. Amongst the literature concerning higher education the focus has been on the institutional bursaries, and the incurrence of student debt generally, and this has been considered largely from a ‘widening participation’ point of view.

17. The focus on widening participation in the broadest sense, as a goal of finance support, has also led to a lack of research into the effect financial support, or lack of, is having on traditional and special interest groups, such as postgraduate students, or part-time students. The changes to the funding system will affect both of these groups, for example, and it may be worth examining why and how.

18. While the evidence suggests that middle income and high income families are generally not as debt averse in connection with higher education as lower income households are, the introduction of higher level of fees may transform behaviour with regard to higher education in these groups also.

19. Finally, there appears to be a lack of substantial or recent research to evaluate the differing effects parental contribution, term-time working and drawing on an overdraft have in mitigating or ‘closing the gap’ between income from bursaries, grants and maintenance loan and the cost of studying plus the cost of living, (whilst studying), and the outcomes for different groups of students.

Further Education

20. Much of the research evidence relating to financial support measures within FE relates to the evaluation of the EMA, ALG, and Care to Learn (C2L) schemes. The body of evidence relating to each of these schemes demonstrates the positive range of impacts that these schemes have had in increasing participation, retention and achievement and meeting their stated policy objectives.

21. C2L has proven to be crucial in allowing young parents to continue their education, and those who then stay in education after their original C2L funded course often progress to higher level learning.

22. In 2010, of those receiving C2L funding in 2007/8, 12 per cent were at university and for the 2006/7 cohort, 20 per cent were at university.

23. The research evidence also demonstrates that C2L has a large and sustained positive impact in reducing the likelihood of young parents being not in education, employment, or training (NEET). This effect being notable both in the short term (in the year after C2L was originally received), and also in the medium term with a reduction in NEET being sustained 40 months after C2L was originally received.

24. The C2L scheme has also demonstrated positive and sustained impacts on progression in learning. Of the 2008/9 cohort who were in learning in 2010 nearly half (48 per cent) were studying a new course, and of those who were in learning leading to a qualification, 60 per cent were undertaking a course at a higher level than the course they originally had received funding for in 2008/9.

25. The research evidence on the assessment of discretionary learner support (dLS) is limited.

26. The Government in its Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) of the EMA Replacement Scheme (2011) also reported that the evidence for discretionary learning support funding has not been as extensive as that for EMA in terms of evaluation.

27. Given the increasing importance of and structural shift towards discretionary funding in FE, examining issues around awareness, access to and impact of discretionary funding are important areas for further research.

28. For example, evidencing the nature and scale of any mismatch between available funding and need; undertaking more systematic, rigorous and up-to-date assessments on issues around awareness and take-up of discretionary funding; understanding the circumstances leading to students applying for funding (or not); how criteria are set and implemented; the extent to which students are turned down and the reasons for this, and the consequences for students.

29. Research to monitor and evaluate the newly introduced 16 to 19 Bursary Fund and the Adult Learner Support (ALS) fund are crucial to assessing their effectiveness and impact including identifying unintended consequences. The Government has stated a commitment to assessing the impact of the new 16 to 19 bursary scheme including “to learn lessons from the first year of operation”, to monitoring applications and approvals for financial support and as well as evaluating the equality of opportunity between certain groups with characteristics protected by equality law.

30. Research to evaluate the impact of withdrawal of EMA and the ALG, and the effects of shifting from a centrally administered means-tested system to one based on local individual institutions’ discretion of individual applications for funding is another related area for further research and assessment.

31. It is also suggested that given the general lack of systematic and evidenced base evaluation of adult discretionary support that this area of financial support merits further attention.

32. The scale of change in arrangements for providers’ in administering the new 16 to 19 bursary scheme and the Adult Learner Support fund, also suggests the need to develop a well-informed and evidencebased understanding of the impact the new administrative arrangements will have/are having on institutions.

33. For example, including exploring issues of how eligibility criteria are set and assessed, the extent to which providers’ are able to take account of changes to an individual’s circumstances, how well equipped they are in assessing relative hardship and managing the costs of administering the new arrangements, and the potential impacts on or consequences thereof for students.

34. Care to Learn and the two residential support schemes for 16 to 18 year olds continue to be under review (the residential schemes being combined for those aged over 18 from 2012/13), though will continue for 2012/13, and the remit of the Professional and Career Development Loans (PCDL) scheme is also being reviewed within the context of the Government’s proposed introduction of fee loans within FE from 2013/14.

Further gaps in the research cross-cutting further and higher education

35. Given the increasing importance of and structural shift towards discretionary funding in FE and the importance of hardship funding for students within HE this would suggest that further evidence on the impact of discretionary funding, generally and for specific groups of students, are important areas for further research.

36. The quality and availability of the management information and administrative data relating to discretionary schemes represent a vital component within any assessment of impact as well as for informing future funding decisions. Accordingly, all those involved in making well-informed decisions about future funding allocations and the provision of financial support for students will need to be aware of the strengths and any limitations of these important data sources.

37. Quantifying and having a grounded understanding of the extent to which students, in either FE or HE, miss out on or fall through the hardship funding or discretionary payment “safety net” might be a critical area for further investigation.