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New Insights on WP: A more radical approach to contextualised admissions

  • 17 August 2017
  • By Vikki Boliver, Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui

On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Over the next few weeks, we will be showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the third in the series, features the chapter on a more radical approach to contextualised admissions, written by Vikki Boliver, Professor of Sociology; Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education and Public Policy; and Nadia Siddiqui, Assistant Professor (Research) at Durham University.

A more radical approach to contextualised admissions

Vikki Boliver, Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui

More than half of all UK universities now draw on contextual data about the socio-economic circumstances of applicants when making undergraduate admission decisions. In doing so, these universities recognise that ‘equal examination grades do not necessarily represent equal potential’ and that ‘it is fair and appropriate to consider contextual factors as well as formal educational achievement, given the variation in learners’ opportunities and circumstances’. Contextual data is being used to help decide which applicants to shortlist, invite to interview, or offer places to subject to standard or reduced academic entry requirements, and to confirm offers to applicants who ultimately fail to achieve the grades stipulated in their initial offer of a place.

Of these various uses of contextual data, the one that will do most to widen participation at highly-selective universities is the reduction of academic entry requirements for disadvantaged students. However, only 18 of the 30 most selective universities in Britain reduce entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants, and typically by just one or two grades. The University of Edinburgh is the most radical in this regard, setting minimum entry requirements for disadvantaged students at three grades below standard entry requirements for some courses (for example, ABB instead of A*AA for their English Literature degree programme).

If the purpose is truly to widen participation at highly-selective universities by a noticeable amount, then the entry requirements for disadvantaged students need to be reduced by considerably more than one or two grades. Just 1 per cent of children eligible for free school meals (FSM) achieve AAA or better at A-Level (or its equivalent) by age 18, compared to 20 per cent of all other children educated in English state schools. Only a quarter of FSM-eligible children achieve any A-Level equivalent qualifications at all, compared to half of all children not in receipt of FSM. If we accept that FSM-eligible children face significant economic and social obstacles to high achievement at school, it can be argued that it is not fair to set the bar for access to a top university at AAA+ for FSM and non-FSM children alike. A fairer bar for FSM children might be CCC and above, which 14 per cent of FSM children manage to achieve.

Significantly lowering entry requirements for applicants to highly-selective universities from disadvantaged backgrounds entails a shift away from formal equality of opportunity towards a concern with fair equality of opportunity. It means recognising that A-Level grades are not a measure of ability, and not an entirely objective measure of attainment, but can serve as an indicator of potential when judged with reference to the socio-economic context in which they were achieved.

Those who oppose substantially reducing entry requirements for disadvantaged students may argue that it would amount to lowering standards, or that it risks less well-qualified students being set up to fail. Both arguments rest on the notion that the standard entry requirements set by highly-selective universities reflect a clear appraisal of what is needed to succeed at degree level. In truth, however, university entry requirements have risen markedly during the past decade across the entire UK higher education sector. This is not because the demands of a university education have increased, nor is it in proportion to inflation of A-Level grades. Instead entry requirements have risen because this has proved an effective way for universities to cope with the administrative burden posed by a rise in the demand for university places. As a result, many universities now ask for A-Level grades which far exceed the minimum required to do well at degree level.

We should recognise, however, that admitting contextually disadvantaged students with grades as low as CCC to otherwise highly academically selective degree programmes does risk setting up these students to fail. This is a risk even if we accept that standard entry requirements to the most academically selective courses are much higher than the minimum needed to do well, and even if we accept that CCC at A-Level indicates similar potential in an FSM student as AAA at A-Level does for students from more advantaged backgrounds. Having achieved CCC at A-Level may be an exceptionally good performance given the obstacles to educational success that FSM eligible students face, but those obstacles are likely to persist beyond entry to university. Moreover, students with CCC at A-Level embarking on a degree course where the norm is AAA+ are likely to face a much steeper climb when it comes to developing the disciplinary knowledge and academic study skills needed to thrive on their degree programme.

So radical change is needed not only in how universities select their undergraduates, but also in how they support students to achieve their full potential while at university. Historically, highly-selective universities have almost exclusively served academically high-flying students, and so have had little need to offer learning support to students beyond that which forms part of the formal degree programme. In recent years, however, the Office for Fair Access and the Scottish Funding Council have been pressing universities to develop widening participation strategies which cover the whole student lifecycle, reaching beyond outreach work and admissions policies. This has prompted a gradual but important change in university thinking about the kinds of academic and other support services needed to foster student success. Things are moving in the right direction, but a radical step change in academic support would be needed if highly-selective universities are to succeed in helping disadvantaged students fulfil their potential.

However, it is worth highlighting that all universities, highly-selective ones included, are currently facing a mounting business case to widen participation on a grander scale than has been countenanced to date. Demographic data indicates that the number of 18-year olds has begun to fall and will continue to do so over the next few years. As a result, universities, even highly-selective ones, are increasingly struggling to fill their places, as evidenced by the fact that 64 per cent of all applications to Russell Group universities were greeted with an offer of a place compared to just 53 per cent five years previously. Given that the higher education participation rates of socio-economically advantaged high-achieving students reached saturation point some time ago, the only way for many highly-selective universities to maintain their student numbers will be to lower their entry requirements at least to some extent.

If highly-selective universities are going to need to lower their entry requirements in order to stay afloat, why not use the opportunity to lower them specifically for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who will otherwise remain sorely under-represented at these institutions?

Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.

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