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Catalyst Fund: Addressing barriers to student success

We are using the Catalyst Fund to support a programme of 17 collaborative projects on addressing differential outcomes for certain groups of students.

Find out more

Understanding and addressing differential student outcomes 

Through our research we are developing an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the outcomes achieved by students from different backgrounds. 


If you have questions or comments about this work, please contact Kirsty Johnson, tel 0117 931 7443.

Our ‘Higher education and beyond’ and ‘Differences in degree outcomes’ reports both highlight statistically significant differences between student groups. 

These differences relate to academic attainment, employment and further study outcomes, when accounting for other background characteristics. 

We commissioned an independent research team to investigate the causes of these differential student outcomes. 

The team explored emerging strategies and interventions across the student life-cycle. This ranged from pre-entry through to progression and attainment outcomes, including progression into further study or graduate employment. 

What does our research show?

The report highlighted four types of explanatory factors for differential outcomes for students:

Curricula and learning, including teaching and assessment practices

Different student groups have different levels of satisfaction with what they learn and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.

Relationships between staff and students and among students

A sense of ‘belonging’ is a key factor that influences student outcomes.

Social, cultural and economic capital

We noted recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and their engagement with learning.

Psychosocial and identity factors

How far students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be important. Such interactions can both help and limit students’ learning and attainment.

Latest report

Causes of differences in student outcomes

Previous reports

Higher education and beyond

Differences in degree outcomes


We held a conference in March 2016 entitled 'Addressing differences in student outcomes: Developing strategic responses'. The conference explored issues relating to differential student outcomes in higher education.   

See the presentation slides from the event


The higher education and beyond and differences in degree outcomes reports built on an earlier student ethnicity report. 

This looked at the profile, progression and attainment of the 2002-03 cohort of UK-domiciled full-time, first degree entrants. It found significant gaps in the achievement of first and upper second class degrees by ethnic group. 

National Student Survey

We have also analysed the results and trends in the first nine years of data from the National Student Survey (NSS). 

We have published large datasets illustrating the difference between the NSS results split by a variety of student and course characteristics such as ethnicity, gender and subject. 

Throughout 2012 HEFCE worked with the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and Equality Challenge Unity (ECU). 

Together we supported research and practice exploring institutional understanding of, and responses to, the black and minority ethnic group attainment gap. This in turn built on earlier institutional engagement activities undertaken by the HEA and ECU.

Differences in employment outcomes: Equality and diversity characteristics

We published a report in October 2015 that examines the early career employment outcomes of UK-domiciled students who qualified from a full-time, first degree course in the academic year 2008-09. It identifies differences in employment outcomes for different equality groups among those qualifying from publicly funded English higher education institutions, and examines whether differences seen in a graduate’s early career persist into the medium term.

Page last updated 18 July 2017