There is a severe lack of robust evidence on how to improve the retention and attainment of students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds in higher education, according to a report published today by the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO).

The report – based on a review conducted by the Bridge Group and Coventry University – also finds scant evidence for the best ways to narrow deep rooted inequalities in universities and colleges relating to race and socio-economic status.

Dr Omar Khan, Director of TASO said:

“When it comes to eliminating equality gaps in higher education, getting more disadvantaged and underrepresented students into university is only half the battle. If we are serious about improving social mobility, then more attention needs to be placed on developing effective ways to help these students succeed in their studies.

“TASO is helping the sector close these gaps by conducting research on breaking down barriers for mature students, promising approaches to reducing racial equality gaps, and exploring ways to evaluate the effectiveness of remote and online teaching.”

The report makes several recommendations aimed at helping the higher education sector improve the situation, including:

  • There is very limited causal evidence available to support efforts to narrow gaps in student success. We need more evidence of this nature. Where this is not practically possible, currency should also be given to other forms of robust evidence.
  • New research should seek to address the lack of studies relating to mature students, commuter students, part-time students and students entering via a vocational route.
  • Institutions should develop indicators to recognise a broader understanding of graduate outcomes and impact, incorporating student perspectives of success.

TASO will upskill the sector to develop sustainable evaluation approaches, best-practice research methods and facilitate cross-institutional knowledge sharing.

The Bridge Group and Coventry University review, which informed this report, aimed to uncover the strength of evidence for interventions higher education providers might use to reduce inequality gaps.

While there are strong positive associations between student engagement in several types of activities and improved outcomes, very few existing studies find a causal link.

The review focused on four outcome areas: attainment, retention, wellbeing, and employment. It incorporated 157 sources from both published literature and a call for evidence, undertaken by TASO in summer 2019.

Report’s recommendations:

  • Ideally, causal links between interventions and student outcomes should be identified. However, in practice if this not achievable, attention should also be focused on evaluating the impact of activity in relation to a wide range of student outcome indicators.  
  • New research should seek to address the lack of studies relating to some specific groups known to have lower rates of retention and/or attainment, namely for mature students, commuter students, part-time students and students entering via a vocational route.
  • Institutions should allocate more resources to develop evaluation expertise, promote innovation and ensure sustainable approaches to complex research.
  • Institutions should develop indicators to recognise a broader understanding of graduate outcomes and impact, incorporating student perspectives of success.
  • Greater attention should be given to disaggregating data to understand patterns of student participation in interventions by equality and diversity groups but also by subject studied, residence and mode of study.
  • Increased focus should be given to intersectionality and how disadvantage may accumulate in and beyond higher education. This has implications both for programme design and evaluation.

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