Impact Activities: Case studies
Informing Policy Through Quantitative Evidence:
Widening participation in higher education - A quantitative analysis
Led by Anna Vignoles, Alissa Goodman, Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally, this project (2006-2007) studied the patterns of entrance to, experience of, and progression through and beyond higher education, in relation to students’ socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, gender, and Sprior educational achievement. Regression-based quantitative modelling made use of linked-survey administrative data from the DCSF, HESA, and LSC, covering the entire cohort of Year 11 (in 2001/02) state school students in England, and supplemented with 2001 Census data, graduate earnings surveys, PISA data, and Ordnance survey data. The research documented a number of persistent educational inequalities, for example, the lower likelihood of state school pupils from deprived backgrounds to go to higher education, in comparison to more advantaged groups. The findings challenged what appeared to be current assumptions in policy-making and recommended new foci for future policy initiatives.
Direct relevance to current and medium-term policy
1) Informing short- and medium-term policy decisions: an explicit aim of the study was to produce robust quantitative evidence to inform policy-makers’ design of strategies to widen access. The choice of topic and research questions reflected this aim. On the basis of the evidence generated, the research team recommended that policy continued to focus on reducing inequalities in participation in higher education, but that it shifted attention towards interventions to improve the performance of disadvantaged children pre-16, and towards the types of higher education provision that were accessed by different groups of students. Similar recommendations were made in the report of the National Council for Educational Excellence, for which the research team collaborated with the Sutton Trust, and which referred to the “Widening participation” project.
2) Assessing policy interventions: for example, the study included an assessment of the effectiveness of introducing the Education Maintenance Allowance, suggesting positive effects of the intervention at pilot stage.
Partnerships between policy, research, and administration
1) Joining data: the project is an excellent model of how different administrative datasets, from a range of public bodies, can be drawn upon coherently and effectively to answer policy-relevant research questions. This process involved several partners over the duration of the project, particularly in its early stages. The main dataset was linked by statisticians at the (then) DfES; data access and use was also negotiated with a number of other institutions (HESA, LSC), with support from the ESRC. Further collaborations around data exploitation involved, for example, the National Audit Office.
2) Two-way exchanges and working collaboratively: the project benefited from direct input from policy-makers from its early stages, via the advisory group, which included representatives from HEFCE and DIUS, alongside academic advisors. Additional direct interaction with policy-makers included contributions to DCSF/DIUS events and oral and written evidence to the Education and Skills Committee.
Effective non-academic dissemination
1) Policy- and user-oriented publications included a policy commentary, jointly with other TLRP HE projects, a research summary for non-academic users (“Centrepiece” magazine), and coverage in publications specifically targeted at policy-makers (“ePolitix”). Additional publications, aimed at a wider user community, included a research briefing and a piece in “Graduate Market Trends”, both in 2008.
2) Media impact: a remarkable feature of this project was the extensive interest that it generated and maintained in the media. For example, from July 2007 to July 2008, coverage of the project’s findings and recommendations included over 14 national newspaper articles and BBC news items and 8 regional newspaper articles.
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