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06 January 2020

Do student bursaries work? Help me find out

Vanessa Todman

VANESSA TODMAN: A cross-institution, longitudinal approach is needed to find out more about the impact of bursaries


Do bursaries actually level the playing field and help students from lower socio-economic backgrounds stay on course and achieve in university? I want to find out, and I need your help. 

Before I started working in higher education, I took it as a given that bursaries where essential for social mobility, even though my own lived experience as a nursing student didn’t actually end up backing this up.

Two years ago, I joined King’s College London What Works (a team that I now lead). Since my move into academia I was surprised to find that the received wisdom in the sector is often that “bursaries don’t work” and that this is mainly based on 2014 and 2010 reports by Office for Fair Access, (OFFA), the regulator at the time, rather than more recent evidence. Bursaries are too expensive for the sector to have a question mark hanging over the efficacy of their provision. I’ve started a PhD to explore this further.

A review of the literature uncovered some recent positive findings to explore further:

1. Bursaries have been found to close the gap in some institutions

A recent, robust, examination of bursary provision by Ilie, Horner, Kaye and Curran at the University of Cambridge found very little difference in retention or attainment of their bursary recipient students in comparison to the rest of their cohort. The lack of a difference suggests that the bursaries are working, levelling the playing field between more and less affluent students. Cambridge is not an average university, and these findings may not be applicable elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s a start, and worth exploring further in other institutions.

2. Bursaries have been found to have a psycho-social impact

Outside of performance data, researchers are getting really interesting testimony from bursary recipients about the psycho-social impact of getting a bursary. Research by Clark and Hordósy, for example, suggests that bursaries can to some extent be thought of as a tool for improving the student experience in their own right, because of their effect on student identity. As well as more economic impacts such as reducing the need for part-time work, research has also shown that they can lower stress and help the student feel wanted by the university (something the Cambridge study also found). I’m keen to explore this further.

We need to look at the impact of bursaries on the student, not just their retention and success

I’m about to embark on a PhD which will build on the findings set out above and aim to increase our understanding of bursary provision. I spend a lot of my time trying to find ways to increase students’ social capital and sense of belonging, so some of these findings have really excited me and I think they warrant further examination. I want to look not just at the narrow success measures of retention and attainment, although these are important, but also wider psycho-social impacts. If bursaries are already achieving an increased sense of identity and belonging among their recipients almost by accident, could they work even better in this regard if we applied what we know from elsewhere in behavioural science?

Institutions need to work together to understand bursary provision properly

Universities offer students different amounts of financial support with different requirements paid in different ways at different times. Therefore, to fully evaluate the efficacy of bursary provision, a cross-institution, longitudinal approach is needed – that’s why I’m looking for other universities to work with. Please email me at if you would like your institution to be involved – I would love to hear from you!

Vanessa Todman is Head of Student Experience Research at King's College London What Works.

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