Student financial support 'not being evaluated' by universities
Most UK universities do not assess how the millions of pounds of financial support they give students affects their progress, a report says.
The Office for Fair Access says some £478m was committed to supporting students financially in 2014-15.
The watchdog said it was key that universities evaluated the effect of bursaries and fee-waivers on student success, access and progression.
Universities are working on common tools for assessing bursaries' effect.
Students are offered subsidised loans to pay their tuition fees, but many universities offer those from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds bursaries and fee-waivers as a way of widening access to degree courses.
In total, a fifth of institutions reported they did not evaluate this financial support at all in 2014-15.
This amounts to some £50m of spending for which there was no evaluation.
A further 25% of institutions reported they had evaluated their financial support, but only by seeking the opinions of participants, not by looking at the impact on student behaviour.
Overall, 45% of institutions looked at how effective the support they offered students had been, by evaluating its impact on access, drop-out rates versus retention and attainment figures.
In its report, access agreement monitoring for 2014-15: institutional evaluation, and equality and diversity, Offa said: "With such significant investment, it is essential that institutions understand the effectiveness of their financial support on access, student success and progression, and adapt programmes of spend according to evidence of effectiveness."
However, the watchdog was clear that 99% of institutions were evaluating the range of activities they undertook to attract students from a wider range of backgrounds.
Director of fair access Prof Les Ebdon said: "Universities and colleges spent £725m on activities and programmes to support fair access through their access agreements in 2014-15, so it is hugely important that they have a considered approach to evaluation to ensure that their investment is having the greatest impact."
A spokesman for Universities UK said it was encouraging that most institutions now evaluated the impact of their financial spend.
"How the evaluation is done will vary across institutions and this will become more sophisticated as the evaluation process is embedded," he said.
"Furthermore, Offa has been working with institutions to develop a set of common measures for assessing the impact of bursaries so this should provide an important tool for institutions to enhance their evaluations further."