Evaluation of the National Scholarship Programme: Year 4
Report to HEFCE written by Lindsey Bowes, Rachel Moreton, Liz Thomas, Jonathan Sheen, Guy Birkin and Sally Richards (CFE Research and Edge Hill University)
This report concludes the four-year evaluation of the National Scholarship Programme (NSP) by CFE Research and Edge Hill University on behalf of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Building on previous years, the aims of the evaluation this year were to review how the programme changed over the three years of its operation and demonstrate the impact on disadvantaged students. Although the NSP is not continuing, the evaluation provides useful learning for the design and delivery of financial aid more generally.
ABOUT THE NSP
The NSP was introduced in 2012/13 to coincide with the rise in tuition fees and ran until 2014/15. The aim of the NSP was to provide a financial benefit to students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education (HE) for the first time. Students from families with an income of less than £25,000 per year were eligible for the NSP, but only those who met the national criteria and any local institutional criteria received an award.
In the first two years, the NSP provided financial support of not less than £3,000 for full-time undergraduate students in England, with a pro-rata amount for part-time students. Institutions were free to design their own package of benefits within guidelines, and awards could be in the form of tuition fee-waivers, accommodation discounts, institutional services and a maximum of £1,000 cash.
A number of changes to the NSP were announced in 2013, effective from 2014/15. These included:
- a reduction in the government’s contribution
- a revised funding-allocation model
- the removal of the requirement to provide 50 per cent match-funding for institutions charging fees of less than £6,000
- a new menu of options for part-time students
- a reduction in the minimum value of the award (down to £2,000), and
- the removal of the £1,000 cap on cash awards for 2014/15 students only.
The fourth year of the evaluation took place between February and July 2015. We carried out online surveys of first- and third-year undergraduate students who had received an NSP award and staff from participating institutions. We also carried out follow-up interviews with staff and students. Our primary research was supplemented by analysis of data from HEFCE on how the NSP was delivered in 2012/13 and 2013/14 and how institutions planned to deliver the NSP in 2014/15.
DESIGN AND DELIVERY OF FINANCIAL AID
Beyond the broad aim to benefit disadvantaged students in higher education, the NSP lacked more clearly defined objectives and there were differing views among stakeholders and institutions as to what the NSP was designed to achieve. In part as a result of these tensions and uncertainties, a wide range of models and approaches to the NSP were developed (within the programme guidelines) and implemented by participating higher education institutions (HEIs). Clearer articulation of the problem to be addressed and the intended outcomes may have led to different choices in delivery, as different approaches are more or less appropriate depending on the objective of any financial aid scheme.
The diversity in terms of how match-funding was used, the package of benefits provided to students and the timing of the payments meant that no distinct or dominant models emerged. Furthermore, institutions adapted their schemes in line with changes to the NSP guidelines, in response to feedback from students and for pragmatic reasons. This created greater divergence in institutional practice over the course of the programme.
Participating institutions would have liked greater flexibility from the outset in order to design a financial support package that met their priorities for supporting disadvantaged students. Some institutions felt that they could have used the government funding in more innovative or appropriate ways without the restrictions of the NSP.
Given the limit on the amount of cash that could be awarded, fee-waivers featured in many NSP schemes. Yet students expressed concerns about their ability to cover their living and study costs. Immediate benefits rather than fee-waivers are more useful in this regard, and cash is more flexible than university services or discounts, allowing students choice and freedom to use as they see fit.
In this final year of the NSP, more institutions chose to deliver their awards in the first year of study only rather than to spread the payments across two or more years (although some institutions provided other financial support in all years of study). However, the financial responsibilities of students do not diminish as their courses progress; on the contrary, in some cases the pressures increase as students seek to reduce their paid employment in order to focus on their studies and/or invest more in materials and resources.
Our earlier reports found that institution-level evaluation of the NSP was patchy and a significant minority of institutions were not evaluating the impact of financial aid more generally. Small and specialist institutions were least likely to be undertaking evaluation. Small institutions in particular lacked capacity to carry out their own evaluations. Some of the potential benefits and impacts of financial aid are only observable over the longer term and, as there are a myriad of factors that can impact retention and student success, attributing causality can be problematic.
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