Small things can make a big difference in access to HE

By Susannah Hume, King’s College London & Behavioural Insights Team |

Young people from lower income families, or families without a history of university attendance, are much less likely to apply to university than their peers, even when they get the grades to do so.

They’re also particularly less likely to apply to selective universities[1] – despite these universities often offering[2] more generous financial support.

In this blog post, we summarise a randomised controlled trial (RCT) run by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in partnership with the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education, that demonstrates both the power of light-touch approaches, and the benefits of robust evaluations in demonstrating impact. You can read the full report here.

Note: a version of this blog post appeared on the WonkHE blog, here.

The need for more data on effective practice

Little robust empirical evidence exists as to what is effective in encouraging and enabling disadvantaged young people to apply to good universities, and much of it is from  North America.[3] However, in previous research,[4] BIT found that a talk from an inspirational role model increased the proportion of students stating they were interested in applying to university and likely to attend by around eight percentage points. We were interested in scaling-up the use of role models explore whether they could be used encourage able students across England to apply to university and to the most selective institutions in particular.

Our trial

We identified our target group as those Year 12 students – around 11,000 in all – who had the GCSE grades needed to get into a selective university but were based in schools where most students went to the local university or did not go to university at all – a proxy for relatively low aspirations.

In 2013 the DfE sent out letters to a subset of these students. These letters were written by undergraduates at the University of Bristol and encouraged students to consider a wide range of universities, including selective institutions. A quarter of students received a letter at their school which was written and hand-signed by a male undergraduate. Later in the year, another quarter received a letter at home which was written by a female undergraduate. Another quarter received both letters and the remaining students formed the control group, who received no letters.


By following the progress of students over the next academic year, we were able to observe a statistically significant effect on students applying to and accepting places at Russell Group universities. Although imperfect, we used the Russell Group as a reasonable proxy for the most selective institutions.

Those who received both letters were 3.3 percentage points more likely to apply to a Russell Group university and 2.9 percentage points more likely to accept an offer from a Russell Group university than students in the control group. We estimate that as a result of the trial an extra 222 students will have gone to a Russell Group university compared to if everyone had been in the control condition. This was achieved at a cost of just £45 per additional student.

Figure 1: The effect of letters from role models on rates of accepting offers from selective universities
Figure 1: The effect of letters from role models on rates of accepting offers from selective universities

We did not see a result on applications to universities overall. This suggests that the main effect was encouraging students who would have applied to university anyway to apply to more selective universities, but this requires more investigation.

Strikingly, when taking into account the costs of designing and sending all the letters, this intervention increased acceptances to Russell Group universities for around £45 per student who accepted a place.

Implications for helping students access (selective) universities

A simple message of support and advice from the right messenger, delivered at the right time, has made a big difference to hundreds of students’ lives. This low-cost, light-touch intervention which is easily scalable and has the potential to improve outcomes for hundreds of students each year.

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[3] A survey of the existing research can be found here.


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