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Most students think universities should take the background of applicants into account – but only half support lower grade offers

  • 25 July 2019
  • By Hugo Dale-Harris

Contextual admissions have been hotly debated for years, but the Office for Students recently complained, ‘There has been minimal research on students’ views of contextual offers.’

So the Higher Education Policy Institute is publishing an opinion poll of students in What do students think of contextual admissions? (HEPI Policy Note 14).

The survey of over 1,000 students shows:

  • three-quarters of full-time undergraduates (73%) think it is harder to achieve good exam results if you grow up in a disadvantaged area – and support is highest at Russell Group, where 81% believe this;
  • most students (72%) also think higher education admissions should take account of applicants’ backgrounds;
  • around half of students (47%) back lower grade offers to those from disadvantaged areas, while nearly as many (45%) oppose the idea – at the most selective universities, a majority (57%) support lower grade offers while 36% oppose them;
  • a minority of students (28%) think contextual admissions would make it ‘harder for students like me’ to get into university, while a majority (53%) disagree;
  • two-thirds (65%) of students do not know if their own university makes contextual grade offers and just 16% are certain that it does; and
  • most students (54%) think those admitted with lower grades would be able to keep up with the course requirements, but four-in-ten students (38%) do not.

Hugo Dale-Harris, HEPI’s Policy Officer and the author of the report, said:

Contextual offers are the most promising tool universities have for picking students with the most academic potential regardless of background. It is encouraging to see most students recognise educational disadvantage makes it harder to do well and want university admissions to recognise the huge potential of those who achieve against the odds.

It’s striking that students at the most selective universities are most supportive, with 57 per cent supporting lower grade offers for applicants who’ve had to struggle harder.

We might have expected students, who are typically from more advantaged backgrounds, to be more resistant to contextual offers. But these results demonstrate for the first time that most students recognise educational inequalities and want universities to address them.

Nick Hillman, HEPI’s Director who wrote the Foreword to the report, said:

Giving disadvantaged applicants lower entry offers is one of the most controversial things that universities do. But there is a secure evidence base for it, as many people underperform at school and college because of their personal circumstances.

Amazingly, despite the controversy about and evidence for, contextualised offers, we haven’t known what students think of them. This, rightly, concerns the Office for Students.

Our poll shows the principles behind contextual offers are widely accepted by students, who believe disadvantage applicants need a boost. Yet most students don’t know if their own university awards contextual offers and only half of students think lower entry offers are right.

So there is still considerable work to be done on winning over hearts and minds.

Notes for Editors

1. Wave 6 of the HEPI/YouthSight Monitor was answered by 1,035 full-time undergraduate students and undertaken between the 28th June and the 1st of July 2019. Weights have been used to ensure the sample is representative by age, gender and university type. The margin of error is +/-3.09%, based on a 95% confidence level.
2. Respondents received a £1 Bonus Bond gift voucher for answering these questions and others on a different topic.
3. The full results are available in a spreadsheet from HEPI.
4. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate with evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.

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