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Rethinking fair admissions

  • 14 January 2021
  • By Vikki Boliver & Mandy Powell

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Vikki Boliver and Dr Mandy Powell, Department of Sociology, Durham University. You can find Vikki on twitter @VikkiBoliver

What do academically selective universities mean by fair admission?

In a new research report funded by the Nuffield Foundation, Fair Admission to Universities in England: Improving Policy and Practice, we explore what universities in England offering courses with high academic entry requirements and a high demand for places mean by the term ‘fair admission’.

During the 2017/18 academic year, we interviewed 78 Heads of Admission and Admissions Selectors drawn from a sample of 17 pre-and post-1992 universities located throughout England.

Soon after we had completed our fieldwork, the Office for Students set challenging new widening access targets for higher-tariff universities and encouraged universities to engage in a process of ‘rethinking how merit is judged in admissions’.

In order to explore whether conceptions of fair admission had changed following this call to ‘rethink merit’, we compared our interview data with the contents of the Access and Participation Plans for 2021/21 through to 2024/25 submitted to the Office for Students in 2019 by England’s 25 higher-tariff universities, including 11 of the universities featured in our interview sample.

Conceptions of fair admission prior to the call to ‘rethink merit’

Our 2017/18 interviews showed that fair access and admission was framed largely with reference to the traditional meritocratic equality of opportunity model of fair admission, where university places go to the most highly qualified candidates irrespective of social background. These universities relied heavily on predicted A level grades as indicators of ‘merit’, despite an awareness that A level grades were often over-predicted. As a result of over-prediction, many higher education institutions ultimately admitted a substantial number of offer holders who failed to meet the academic entry requirements as ‘near-misses’ during the August confirmation period in 2020.

Our interviewees were sympathetic to the alternative meritocratic equity of opportunity model, where prospective students’ qualifications are judged in light of the socioeconomic circumstances in which they were obtained. However, only half routinely reduced academic entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants and instead gave additional consideration to these applicants where they were projected to meet standard academic entry requirements. Where entry requirements were reduced, this was typically by just one or two grades.

Many of our interviewees reported resistance by some academic staff members to reducing academic entry requirements for socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants on the grounds that doing so would inevitably set those students up to fail. Many also indicated that existing pedagogical practices and academic support structures were inadequate to the task of ensuring that contextually admitted students would be appropriately supported to fulfil their potential at the institution.

Progress: Conceptions of fair admission after the call to ‘rethink merit’

The Access and Participation Plans for 2020/21 to 2024/25 submitted in 2019 to the Office for Students by England’s 25 higher-tariff universities revealed that there had been a shift in institutional thinking on fair access and admissions since our interviews in 2017/18.

All higher-tariff universities had committed to much more ambitious widening access targets than ever before, although many expressed concerns about the adequacy of POLAR as a means of identifying genuinely socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals, especially in London.

Many higher-tariff universities identified the dearth of highly qualified individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds as a continuing obstacle to widening participation at their institution. However, there had been a shift in thinking away from interpreting lower attainment in terms of individual deficit towards a more structural understanding of social inequalities in school attainment. Most providers recognised that they had a contribution to make in closing the school attainment gap through varied forms of outreach work, and all but four of the twenty-five higher-tariff universities have committed to reducing academic entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants.

Importantly, all higher-tariff providers acknowledged that they had a major role to play in ensuring the success of their students at degree level, especially those from socioeconomically disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds. Correspondingly, all providers had committed to a range of new initiatives designed to improve significantly the social and academic inclusion of students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups.

Implications for fair admission policy and practice

While the report recognises the distance already travelled by higher-tariff universities in response to the OfS’s call to ‘rethink merit’, our findings point to the need for universities to:

  • become progressively bolder over time in their use of contextual data on the socioeconomic circumstances of applicants to inform admissions decisions;
  • commit to the contextualised assessment of all selection criteria used formally or informally to reach admissions decisions including grades achieved at GCSE, scores on additional entrance tests, personal statements, references, portfolios of work and performances at interview;
  • continue to develop currently nascent academic support systems and newly inclusive approaches to teaching and learning for the benefit of all students but especially those from disadvantaged and under-represented groups; and
  • communicate more proactively to prospective students and the wider public their commitment to contextualised admissions policies and to inclusive teaching and learning practices.

The research findings also point to the need for national higher education policymakers to:

  • facilitate the shift to a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system in order to ensure that admissions decisions are made on the basis of achieved rather than predicted grades and to make it easier for institutions to select applicants with a mind to achieving widening access targets;
  • replace the area-based widening access metric POLAR, known to be a poor proxy for socioeconomic and educational context, with individual-level measures of contextual disadvantage, and make this information available to universities via UCAS so that it can be used to inform individual admissions decisions;
  • require universities to record and report on the number of applications they receive from prospective students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and on the admissions decisions made in relation to these applications, to enable more accurate monitoring of progress on widening access; and
  • continue to facilitate the development and dissemination of the growing evidence base supporting good practice in the use of contextual data to inform admissions decisions, and in the use of academic support systems and inclusive teaching and learning practices to ensure that students from all backgrounds realise their potential once at university.

The full research report is available here.


  1. Much rich material, thank you. It is indeed the case that ‘A level grades are often over-predicted’, if only because the process builds in incentives for teachers to do so. Hence ‘the shift to a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system in order to ensure that admissions decisions are made on the basis of achieved rather than predicted grades and to make it easier for institutions to select applicants’.

    But does this assume that A level grades, as awarded, are at least more reliable than predictions, if not fully reliable?

    Ofqual have now acknowledged that, on average, awarded grades are ‘reliable to one grade either way’, so that a certificate showing AAB really means ‘any grades from A*A*A to BBC’, with wide variations in reliability by subject (for example, for subjects such as Geography, Sociology, English and History, there is about a 50% chance that a candidate awarded any of grades A, B, C, D or E would have been awarded a different grade had the script been marked by a different examiner).

    What might be the impact of the unreliability of actual grades on fair admissions?

  2. Ian McNay says:

    I have just been part of the CGHE seminar on this, for which many thanks. My immediate response to this blog was: who submits the ‘individual-level measures of contextual disadvantage? If it is the same people who do estimated grades, will it be as in/accurate? Will applicants be wiling to reveal information, particularly when it is based domestically not just socio-economically? Many do not get free school dinners because of such reluctance and the stigma attached.

  3. Aasia Shafiq Chaudhry says:

    Yes I agree that not all people may want to share their information (e.g. socio- economic circumstances) because it may leave a negative impact on their children overall well-being and ultimately on their studies.

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