Outreach rapid review of the literature

by Dominik Jackson-Cole

The following rapid review of UK based outreach literature was conducted for the Reaching East and Reaching London projects. We hope you find it useful.

Figure 1. Types and volume of outreach in London 2013/14 academic year.

outreach types of events

Introduction – outreach landscape

The Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) and Office for Fair Access (OFFA) are the two main Widening Participation (WP) regulatory bodies which have provided funding and direction for outreach efforts. Significant amounts of WP funding was introduced in 2004 (HEFCE, 2015), however the outreach landscape changed significantly since. Aimhigher partnerships funded until 2010 provided impartial outreach and information advice and guidance (IAG) while from 2012 there has been a stronger emphasis on Higher Education institutions’ (HEIs) outreach work with the OFFA requirement of a reinvestment of a proportion of additional fee income into WP. Based on the analysis of access agreements (documents which outline the outreach strategy and expenditure for HEIs), McCaig (2016) found that the shift resulted in modern/post-1992 institutions concentrating their outreach efforts on working with 16+ high achieving students, at the expense of diversity, as they already had a good demographic profile. At the same time pre-1992 HEIs targeted their outreach at raising attainment and aspirations of under-represented (mostly disadvantaged/poor) pupils who were already high achievers.

 Types of outreach

Based on a survey of 90 HEIs the most popular forms of outreach are: HEIs’ visits to secondary and further education establishments in order to (in order of frequency) raise aspirations, support progression and attainment, and provide mentoring to target groups (CFE and Edge Hill University, 2013). Summer schools, campus visits, mentoring and interventions using student ambassadors were seen as the most effective (Sutton Trust, 2008), however establishing causality here has been problematic (see below).

Evaluation and its limitations  

Evaluation schemes differ from institution to institution and there is a lack of consistency across the sector, especially in terms of quantitative data (ARC Network, 2013; Rodger and Burgess, 2010; UVAC, 2010). Issues with establishing causality seem to be a recurring theme (ARC Network, 2013; HEFCE, 2015). There are particular difficulties with measuring effectiveness of outreach to mature, part-time and vocational students, as well as primary school pupils (ARC Network, 2013). This is due to the impact of a multitude of factors on the educational pathways of learners. By now, most research projects account for these, e.g. socio-economic backgrounds, types of schools attended, achievement type and level, etc. However, they do not often, if at all, account for and link with policy changes in other parts of the education sector, like the effects of withdrawal of EMA in Further Education (Britton and Dearden, 2015), or the introduction of pupil premium in primary and secondary schools (Carpenter, et al., 2013). Although with their own limitations and ethical issues, longitudinal studies (Gazeley and Aynsley, 2012) as well as controlled trials (Gorard et al., 2012) have been suggested as a way forward for evaluation efforts. To this effect, since 2014 the HEFCE has recommended that institutions sign up to the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) scheme, which helps track individual learners’ exposure to outreach interventions all through their student life cycle (HEFCE, 2014).

Effectiveness – what works.

As the evaluation of outreach is problematic there is no hard evidence as to which particular combination of outreach interventions is the most effective (ARC Network, 2013). The HEFCE (2015) study linking GCSE results with HE participation found that since significant WP investment began in 2004 the actual HE participation of young learners (aged 18-19) has increased by up to 4 percentage points above the expected participation rate, as inferred from GCSE results (HEFCE, 2015) therefore supporting a thesis that existence of any form of outreach has been beneficial (ARC Network, 2013).  However, big dataset/cohort research projects suggest that attainment and in particular, Key Stage 4 (KS4, e.g. GCSEs, usually taken at 16), are the best predictors/have the biggest impact on HE participation (Chowdry et al., 2012; Crawford, 2014).

Implications and future changes.

This suggests therefore that most of outreach should be targeted at pre-16 education and concentrate on improving attainment (Crawford, 2014), which differs significantly from the current outreach landscape. Further changes in the outreach arena may be needed, as the analysis of 2016-17 access agreements suggests that despite systematically increasing the outreach budget, institutions still allocate the majority of their WP funds into financial support (OFFA, 2015), which has been proven to have very little, to no, effect on attracting/deterring students from under-represented/ disadvantaged backgrounds (Nursaw Associates, 2015).


ARC Network (2013) Literature review of research into widening participation to higher education. Report to HEFCE and OFFA.

Britton, J and Dearden, L. (2015) The 16 to 19 bursary fund: impact evaluation. Research report. Institute for Fiscal Studies & Institute of Education

Carpenter, H., Papps, I., Bragg, J., Dyson, A., Harris, D., Kerr, K., Todd, L. and Laing, K. (2013) Evaluation of Pupil Premium. Research Report. TNS BMRB, TECIS, Centre for Equity in Education, University of Manchester & Newcastle University

CFE and Edge Hill University (2013) The uses and impact of HEFCE funding for widening participation. Bristol: HEFCE. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/hefce/content/pubs/indirreports/2013/usesandimpactofwpfunding/The%20uses%20and%20impact%20of%20HEFCE%20funding%20for%20widening%20participation.pdf

Chowdry, H., Crawford, C., Dearden, L., Goodman, A. and Vignoles, A. (2012) Widening participation in higher education: Analysis using linked administrative data. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A: Statistics in Society, 176(2), 431-457.

Crawford, C. (2014) The link between secondary school characteristics and university participation and outcomes. CAYT Research Report. Institute for Fiscal Studies and University of Warwick.

Gazeley, L. and Aynsley, S. (2012) The contribution of pre-entry interventions to student retention and success. York: Higher Education Academy. Available at: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/WP_syntheses/Gazeley_Aynsley

Gorard, S., See, B. H. and Davies, P. (2012) Attitudes and aspirations in educational attainment: exploring causality. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/education-young-people-parents-full.pdf

Nursaw Associates (2015) What do we know about the impact of financial support on access and student success? Review of the research and evaluation of the impact of institutional financial support on access and student success. Report to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) (2014) Guidance for national networks for collaborative outreach. No. 20/2014. HEFCE: Bristol.

HEFCE (2015) Delivering opportunities for students and maximising their success. Evidence for policy and practice 2015-2020. No. 2015/14 Policy development. HEFCE: Bristol.

Office for Fair Access (OFFA) (2015) Access agreements for 2016-17: key statistics and analysis. No 2015/06 OFFA: Bristol.

Rodger, J. and Burgess, M. (2010) Qualitative evaluation of the Aimhigher Associates programme: pathfinder. Bristol: HEFCE. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/rereports/year/2010/evalaimhigherpathf/

The Sutton Trust (2008) Increasing higher education participation amongst disadvantaged young people and schools in poor communities. Available at:


University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC), (2010) Progression from Vocational and Applied Learning to Higher Education across the UK. London: UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). Available at:



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