Aim high and the results will follow | Big Society Capital

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Aim high and the results will follow

Social issue | 

For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, a good education can be the key to opening up new opportunities. Higher education, in particular, has been shown to have a significant effect on a young person's career prospects and lifetime earnings, and as a result, their social mobility. Yet it’s also widely true that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to underperform academically versus their more affluent peers.

The same is true in higher education. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to go to university. And even if they do, they are more likely to end up dropping out. What’s perhaps more shocking is that this is also true for those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have managed to achieve good grades (despite the odds) at school. So the benefits of higher education are limited even for those who have the most to gain. 

Whilst successive governments have attempted to address these challenges, sustained progress continues to be slow. But we have another opportunity now to do things differently. The current Government has reprioritised widening participation in higher education and access to graduate-level employment for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the Prime Minister committing to doubling the number of these students accessing higher education by 2020 (from 2009 levels).

To do things differently, creative, informed, yet radical solutions are needed. That’s why Big Society Capital has joined Social Finance, Impetus-PEF, Right to Succeed, The Access Project & UBS in responding to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills' higher education green paper. We’re calling for the use of a payment for outcomes approach to help support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access and succeed in higher education.

Why this approach? To begin with, we still don’t know what has and hasn’t been effective from all the money spent to address this issue so far. Added to that, tuition fee income incentivises universities to compete for student enrolments rather than work together to ensure students are supported into the higher education institution that is right for them. This lack of collaboration limits the sharing of best practice, and leads to some of the most vulnerable students not receiving the support they need.

By commissioning for positive student outcomes, rather than funding individual interventions, payment for outcomes could help stimulate a more collaborative, data-driven approach to widening participation, prioritising students’ needs over a university’s potential revenue streams. This shift in emphasis would help specialist providers such as the Sutton Trust, IntoUniversity and The Access Project work with the best in-class interventions provided by individual universities, to create a tailored package of support to meet a student’s needs. They will then be able to better address the complex challenges facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A positive by-product of such an approach would be the wealth of data and information that would be created. This would complement the growing emphasis on understanding what interventions really work for particular student groups in different locations.

Only by thinking holistically will we start to see real change – more students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education, increasing their social mobility, lowering inequality and supporting economic growth in the UK.

Our full consultation response is available here -


We welcome any feedback or thoughts from higher education practitioners and sector specialists, funders or social investors on how payment for outcomes type approaches can be used to support student outcomes. 

Last updated | 
14 April 2016