JISC Students FIRST Findings

Students FIRST is a JISC funded project that explores the use of technology to deliver Financial Interventions to assist Retention and Student Transitions (FIRST). It involves an innovative collaboration of partners: two Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) The University of East London (UEL) and Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) the national body for Student Services (AMOSSHE), and three private companies – John Smith’s booksellers, Modus and Blackboard Connecttxt.

The project had two strands – one operational (the potential development of integrated technology solutions for students to better access student services and to improve their financial literacy), and a research strand which examined the impacts of a targeted bursary scheme at both ARU and UEL, whereby students bursaries are delivered via smartcard technologies. The research strand was delivered by Continuum, the centre for widening participation policy studies, based at UEL.

Eligible students at ARU and UEL were already issued with SMART cards that carried credit to purchase learning materials. The scheme has been in operation at UEL since the 2006/2007 academic year, and at ARU since the 2009/2010 academic year.

The intention of this scheme is that specifically targeting bursaries to ensure that students will spend these monies on learning materials will thereby enhance student learning, the student experience and academic achievement. In turn, it was believed that this would further enhance student transitions, progression and retention. Students FIRST explored these assumptions, whilst also looking to advance the use of technology not only in delivering bursaries but bringing together several related institutional drivers and services.  The research strand of the project sought to address the question:

Does targeted student bursary provision improve student retention, transition and success?

The research employed a mixed-methods approach, comprising quantitative analysis of sales data matched with student record data from ARU and UEL. These data comprised sales and student record data for 9,546 ARU students (including 1,128 graduates) and sales and student data records for 28,550 UEL students (including 10,760 graduates).

In addition to the large quantitative data sets, some qualitative data was also collected. We conducted a number of focus groups (nine in total), with both student services personnel at HEIs (three groups), expert interviews with the technology providers and one local bookstore manager, interviews and focus groups with students at ARU and UEL (six focus groups and two interviews). In addition, we utilised data from a student survey delivered at UEL in November 2011, which was completed by 547 students, as well as qualitative data from e-mail correspondence with students who could not attend the focus groups.

Headline Findings

  • There is a strong, positive correlation between higher spend on books and academic achievement at both UEL and ARU. Those students, who spend more on their bursaries, achieve higher degree classifications.
  • Students are satisfied with the bursary, and 74% (of UEL student surveyed) say that it encourages them to do better in their studies.
  • Institutions believe that the bursary helps with retention rates, and aside from the last year of HESA figures (2009/2010) retention rates at UEL improved the year the scheme was introduced. However, the research cannot confirm a causal relationship between the bursary and retention.
  • All students we spoke with were unaware of the bursary before they enrolled – it did not, therefore, contribute to their choice of institution.
  • Spend patterns of UEL graduates, and ARU students when mapped to social class are very similar which indicates that the bursary is useful in providing equality of opportunity to access learning materials across different social classes.
  • Core book, total book and total spend varies considerably according to school of study, ethnicity, and gender.
  • Mapping library loan data against degree classification and book spend did not show a relationship between library loans and academic achievement at UEL.
  • The main criticism from some students is that they would prefer a cash bursary – however students we spoke with acknowledge that they would not have bought the books without the bursary, and some prefer the restrictions of the bursary to learning materials.
  • Students are heavily influenced in their core book choice by lecturers, tutors and other academic staff.
  • While e-books are becoming more popular, students that we spoke with all said that they preferred a hard copy of their core texts, for note-taking. They also expressed the desire to keep their core texts from one year to the next, and after graduation.

For more information about the research, please click here to read the executive summary, and here to read the full research report.

To watch the videos that Continuum produced for the project, please click here.

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