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The sector is right to embrace contextual admissions; but it also needs to take student opinion with it

  • 6 August 2019
  • By Hugo Dale-Harris

It was a busy news day on the 25th of July, with Boris Johnson’s new cabinet just announced so you may have missed discussion of our latest Policy Note: What do students think of contextual admissions?

Based on a survey of 1,035 students conducted by Youthsight, it was the first serious attempt to gather student views on the topic. We found that, despite years of media controversy, three-quarters of students agree that being disadvantaged make it harder to get good A-Levels, and a similar proportion think that universities should consider background when assessing applications.

However, it also showed opinion is split roughly half and half on the issue of whether lower grade offers should be made to disadvantaged students.

Some people have made the point to me that student views on this issue don’t really matter. After all we have a strong evidence base to show that contextual admissions are a better way of choosing academic potential than grades alone. And the social justice argument for improving the diversity of admissions, especially to the most selective universities, is overwhelming.

Universities should certainly do what they think is right with regard to admissions. But if this means that contextual offers rapidly expand without a corresponding effort to make sure students think it is fair, then this could lead to a backlash.

Very few students put ‘don’t know’ on any of the questions about the desirability of contextual admissions, reflecting that this is something students care about. Indeed, admissions is one of the few areas of university policy that all students will know well from personal experience.

Students deserve to be part of the admissions debate, and it is not desirable to run an admissions policy without the broad support of the student body.

All this means the sector should be communicating clearly with their student body about their use of contextual factors in their admissions systems. Many will say they are already doing this, but that is hard to square with the finding that two-thirds of students don’t know if their institution makes contextual offers. There will be a small number of courses and institutions where the answer is inherently ambiguous (what does a contextual offer for a creative art portfolio mean?), but we can’t get away from the fact that this is something universities have tended to keep under the radar.

If institutions are to start seriously engaging with the mass of students about contextual admissions, there are a few approaches that may be fruitful.

1. Be clear with students about the contextualised admissions process and its robustness

The overall findings of the survey are that students are mostly positive towards taking contextual admissions processes. As such, institutions shouldn’t be overly concerned about opening up a debate around their admissions.

However, it is important to have a strong and robust process to describe. In our survey, some of the respondents queried the robustness of using single measures of disadvantage, such as home post code.

I feel like individual circumstances should be taken into account, eg; just because the area is poor doesn’t mean the person is, each individual should be assessed.

Female second-year student at a Post 1992 university

Institutions should be taking an intersectional approach to disadvantage – and demonstrating that their use of contextual offers is nuanced. This will also make for the most convincing argument for students. Without this a narrative could develop of students who ‘only got in because of [their postcode/their school etc]’.

Scottish institutions are already setting a lead on this by publishing lower grade offers that will be considered standard for less advantaged candidates. It will be interesting to see how this united approach plays out and influences student views on the issue.

2. Emphasise that contextual offers are about finding the best candidates

The killer point about contextual admissions is that they are the means to finding candidates with the greatest potential. It must be made clear that the lower tariff represents, at worst, an equal level of attainment and potential and institutions should collect evidence from the success of their own contextually-admitted students to back this up.

3. Raise awareness of the realities of educational disadvantage.

Our report shows that students who agreed with the statement “growing up in disadvantaged areas makes it harder to achieve good A-Levels” (i.e. those who are aware of the reality of educational inequality) are much more likely to support contextual offers. In fact, of students who strongly agree that disadvantage makes success in A-Levels harder, 82% support contextual admissions.

As the sector increases its use of contextual offers to keep up with the challenging Office for Student targets (page 4 here), we will need to keep the public on board by proactively arguing that these offers are genuinely meritocratic. The best place institutions can start this work is with their own students.

HEPI Policy Note 14: What do students think of contextual admissions? Is available here

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