Contextualised university admissions: how to make them fairer

12 Jul 2018, 12:00

Now we have consensus that more diverse admissions benefit both students and universities, Sam Butters writes, it’s time to increase transparency via shared terminology and better use of data

We know that parents’ income, the quality of school attended and a myriad of other background factors continue to affect educational outcomes for young people, including how well they do in their exams and their likelihood of progressing to higher education.

We also know it is possible to close this gap. There are well-known examples of schools that have bucked the trend, and where disadvantaged pupils do just as well as their wealthier peers. The primary aim must surely be to continue to work towards a UK education system in which your background does not determine your educational outcomes.

Sadly, it is still the case across the country that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are, on average, 1.2 grades behind their wealthier peers at age 16.

Efforts to increase the diversity of higher education student cohorts through outreach programmes appear to have had only marginal effects at the most selective universities, partly because such institutions tend to have both high entry tariffs and high levels of competition. They face the challenge that there is a much smaller pool of disadvantaged applicants who fulfil the preset expectations, including required grades. State-school students from more affluent families are still four times as likely as peers from low-income families to enter a higher-tariff university.

The Fair Education Alliance has published new findings (based on research by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Social Mobility) that shine a light on how contextual data is used at highly selective universities, and make recommendations on how to use these data in ways that make access to higher education in the UK fairer.
The main findings are as follows:
• The use of contextualised data in higher education admissions has become increasingly accepted over the past five years and the practice more widespread.
• Contextualisation is applied in a variety of ways by higher education institutions, and it is often unclear (particularly for applicants) which practices are undertaken.
• Key concerns are now less about reaching consensus that contextualised admissions can be conducted fairly and to the benefit of universities and students, and more about creating a shared terminology and common understanding of good data use, thereby increasing transparency.

We believe two steps should now be taken:
First, we are calling for improved access by institutions to relevant data. Inconsistencies across the UK nations and missing data are of particular concern. Area-based measures, such as participation of local areas (POLAR) classification groups, are too broad and do not guarantee that every applicant has the same background characteristics as others in the same group.

Other more accurate measures, such as free school meal eligibility and the multiple equality measure quintile, should be made available to HEIs at the application stage. Evidence suggests that these measures provide more meaningful information about a young person’s background, and improve the legitimacy and effectiveness of contextualised admissions practices.

Second, it is essential that applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds are made aware that they may be eligible for additional consideration at institutions they may otherwise think are out of their reach.
Our research showed that school careers advisors still do not have sufficient confidence in this area to advise students to aim for more selective universities, or have the information to hand about which background factors matter to which universities.

Schools say that the admissions landscape is confusing and that wide variability in practices has led to low levels of trust in admissions processes. These views are mirrored by HEIs, who generally think the understanding of contextualised admissions in schools is low.

We recently called on the Office for Students to require HEIs to publicise what kinds of data they use in their contextual admissions process on the UCAS application page for each individual course. The most selective universities should publish joint guidance for careers leaders, outlining which contextual factors they each take into considerations, and update such guidance annually.

We pleased that the OfS has just announced their support for our recommendations, and has called for an “ambitious approach” to contextual admissions

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