Bursaries do not improve the chances of students from poorer backgrounds completing a degree, a study has found.
Instead, the biggest factors that influence drop-out rates are how well the student did at A-level and household income.
The study, Do Bursaries Have any Effect on Retention? by the Office for Fair Access (Offa), also found that students from disadvantaged areas are less likely to complete their studies than those from the least disadvantaged areas, and that those attending institutions with higher entry requirements were more likely to complete their course than those at universities with lower requirements.
Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said, “Previous research showed us that bursaries do not have an observable effect on the choice of university for disadvantaged young people.
“Now this new piece of Offa analysis shows that bursaries may not be the powerful retention tool that many currently believe them to be.
“At this stage, we’re not ruling out the possibility that bursaries may have an effect on retention rates – what we’re saying is that, within the constraints of the data currently available to us, we have not been able to detect any such effect”.
The report also found that neither the size nor the availability of a bursary had much effect on whether a student would finish their degree course.
Instead, the study said that continuation rates were similar whether the student was receiving a bursary of less than £700 a year or more than £1,000 a year.
Professor Ebdon said the report provides evidence that universities should spend money on outreach projects with schools, rather than on students.
He has asked universities to take the findings of the report into account when they draw up their access agreements.
He said, “We will be encouraging them to rebalance their investment towards both targeted [and] sustained activities that raise attainment and aspirations, and activities that support students in successfully continuing their studies and progressing to employment or postgraduate study”.