Is context everything? What ‘contextual admissions’ really means

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There’s been a lot of heat, and not nearly enough light, in the press recently on the question of contextual university admissions. Does the growing interest mean “punishing pupils from good schools”? Are contextual admissions a distraction from improving schools across the board? Does the practice lower academic standards as has been claimed by some?

Let’s get one thing straight first. A-levels or Highers, or any exam for that matter, aren’t some neutral, completely reliable, source of data about an individual candidate’s aptitude. For one thing, exams (and with recent A-level curriculum changes there is far less coursework contributing to final results) are a snapshot of a point in time. And at that point of time, you’re likely to perform better if you have a number of advantages. For example, if your school has the resources – staff (well-qualified, highly motivated, small class sizes) and facilities (library, IT etc.) – to facilitate the highest quality learning.

If your teachers have the time and opportunity to personalise your learning, you’ll probably do better in the exams. You can pay for this kind of service in many independent schools or through private tutors. Your family background also makes a difference, including what expectations are placed on you, what books and technology are in the house, and how much time your family spends helping you learn.

So if those families with the money to attend independent schools, pay for extra tutoring, live near the best state schools, or take more time off work, are also those more likely to do better in exams, how do we know who really has the capacity to succeed at university? As a growing number of studies shed light on the relationship between social disadvantage and academic performance, there seems to be overwhelming evidence that a true “level playing field” is one in which we understand the gap between potential and performance in any given set of exams.

The evidence shows that it’s possible to admit poorer students to universities on lower grades, and for them to achieve the same progression and classifications as their more advantaged peers. Therefore, admitting less advantaged students with lower grades at the end of school is not lowering standards. This might be hard to swallow if you believe the fiction that exams are neutral assessments: it’s time to wise up to the fact that the evidence – and some basic logic – suggests otherwise.

The selection box

The Sutton Trust has crunched the numbers for the thirty most selective universities and made seven recommendations:

  1. Universities should use contextual data in their admissions process to open up access to students from less privileged backgrounds.
  2. There should be a greater use of individual-level contextual indicators, such as previous eligibility for free school meals (FSM), as well as school-level and area-level criteria.
  3. Universities practicing contextualisation should provide additional support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those who have been admitted with lower grades, in recognition of the additional difficulties such students may face.
  4. There should be greater transparency from universities when communicating how contextual data is used.
  5. Foundation year provision should be increased, with greater targeting of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  6. Participation in outreach programmes should be shared as a contextual indicator across universities.
  7. Universities, and those who run similar outreach programmes, should consider more inclusive thresholds to reduce barriers to participation and increase access.

The trust’s conclusion is that, with a little more generosity in the contextualisation of offers, the most selective universities could increase the numbers of students they take from the poorest backgrounds (as defined in this case by previous eligibility for FSM) by fifty per cent. Given that access to full-time higher education for the most disadvantaged 18 year olds in England has increased overall, but not at the most selective universities, these seem like sensible and reasonable recommendations to follow.

Time for reform?

The think tank Reform has also done work in this area recently, again focusing on the most selective universities (though other more spurious groupings are also available). Reform found that the one stand-out institution for increasing its proportion of disadvantaged students was LSE, which had made extensive use of contextual admissions, though without actually lowering grades. Applying this approach across the twenty-nine most selective universities, Reform calculated, could see an additional 3,500 disadvantaged students admitted each year.

Reform’s report made four recommendations for action, three for the Office for Students:

  1. Make the reporting of outreach spending more consistent, and provide uniform, detailed guidelines for what should be included.
  2. Manage a public database of different institutions’ headline approaches to contextualised admissions.
  3. Collect all evidence related to contextualised intakes and commission teams of academics to conduct analyses of anonymised datasets.

And there was one for universities: “all universities should subscribe to a service tracking the outcomes of individual participants in outreach activities. With rigorous evaluation, this should inform performance assessment for attainment- and aspiration-raising work.”

In contrast to the Sutton Trust’s recommendations for institutions, Reform has looked at the system in which fair access and widening participation operates. OfS has significantly more levers than OFFA for compelling changes in university behaviour, and may well deploy those powers to advance contextual admissions.

The Scottish model

The Scottish Funding Council commissioned research on contextual admissions across Scottish universities. There is a clear political imperative for the work, as the report states:

“The First Minister’s goal is to increase the representation of individuals from Scotland’s 20% most deprived neighbourhoods (SIMD20) among full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities to at least 16% by 2021, at least 18% by 2026, and 20% by 2030. The ambition is also to increase the representation of those from SIMD20 postcodes to at least 10% of entrants to every university in Scotland by 2021, with higher institution-specific targets to follow.”

The research reports, conducted by researchers from Durham University (including Vikki Boliver and Mandy Powell, who also worked on the Sutton Trust report), cover the current landscape of contextual admissions in Scotland through a mapping exercise, and then look at which contextualisation measures work and how they could be implemented. The work provides the basis by which universities can set “access thresholds,” the minimum academic level to succeed on a programme. This follows the Commission on Widening Access recommendations that these levels should be set, not least to provide consistency of approach.

Contest or context?

Contextualised admissions, while not the most accessible term, should be applied to improve access to all universities, and especially the most selective institutions. Do you need to know the right factors to contextualise? Yes. Is extensive work required to make sure that the system is consistent and fair? Yes. Will this process always get the right result? Maybe not. But, on balance, this is clearly the way the policy wind is blowing – and for good reasons.

Universities should look seriously at the Sutton Trust’s and Reform’s recommendations, before the Office for Students uses its new levers to force compliance in England. Scotland is already further along that enforcement line and, with clear targets for widening participation the the most deprived groups, universities will feel the pressure to both do more, and show that they’re doing more. You don’t like it? The weight of evidence and the politics are now stacked against you.

7 thoughts on “Is context everything? What ‘contextual admissions’ really means”

  1. Gareth Williams says:

    If by contextualised admissions is meant taking into account more than just A level results in assessing a student’s potential to benefit from a highly selective university’s education there can be no dispute. Until comparatively recently this always was the case at Oxford and Cambridge, hence the often ridiculed questions which were sometimes asked at interviews that were designed not to find out how much a student knew but how they thought. This was largely discontinued when it was though that objective A level results were fairer for students from less advantaged backgrounds. However the main problem with this approach is that at a time of near universal higher education it is extremely resource intensive to interview everybody who might like to get into a Russell Group university. There is likely to be some pre-selection and that tends to mean only those who have done pretty well at school are interviewed. There is also the difficulty of self selection. Many students from this part of the world (the North of England) do not want to go to posh southern universities. However one likely consequence is that identified by Michael Young many years ago. If it becomes possible to ensure that all the most promising young people go to Oxbridge or one of the other universities in the golden triangle this will widen the split between the meritocrats and the rest of the population..

    In brief I believe it is misleading and counterproductive to focus large efforts on getting a few hundred more disadvantaged students into the so-called top universities. What is needed is to ensure that all young people have an excellent secondary education that meets their interests and abilities and that all universities and colleges have their own distinct forms of excellence

  2. Bradbury Smith says:

    “The evidence shows that it’s possible to admit poorer students to universities on lower grades, and for them to achieve the same progression and classifications as their more advantaged peers.”

    This is the author’s key contention and it would be helpful if, in a follow up post, Ant Bagshaw could present the evidence in support of this point so that it can be subject to scrutiny.

    It is quite possible to classify applicants by quintiles using some measure of relative affluence or deprivation and for selective Universities to admit (or aim to admit) a fixed proportion of each quintile. However, this exercise assumes that exposure to poor teaching or other forms of disadvantage has no effect on future potential. If this assumption is not in fact correct and the ill effects of poor teaching and other forms of social disadvantage are long-term, then contextualised admissions only serves as a sticking plaster. The correct policy response is partly to address deficincies in the school experience and partly to address the causes of household deprivation.

  3. Jessica Benson says:

    “The evidence shows that it’s possible to admit poorer students to universities on lower grades, and for them to achieve the same progression and classifications as their more advantaged peers.”

    Another plea to share some specific examples of this evidence, as I am struggling to find it.

    Examples I can find don’t seem to support this claim – for example HEFCE (2014) ‘Difference in degree outcomes key findings’. This report finds that prior attainment is a key predictor of degree outcome (“More than 80 per cent of students with grades AAB or above gain a first or upper-second degree; approximately 50 per cent or less of those with CCC or lower do so.”) and also that “those from the most disadvantaged areas have consistently lower HE degree outcomes than those with the same prior educational attainment from other areas.” While the report does find that “State school students tend to do better in their degree studies than students from independent schools with the same prior educational attainment”, again prior attainment is important – it doesn’t find that state school students tend to do better than independent school students when they enter HE with lower grades.

  4. Ringstone. says:

    Unless conceptualisation is enforced across the board, and I don’t advocate that, it is not risk free for institutions involved.
    When my son was considering his options he looked at Bristol but because they were in the papers as “handicapping” on various measures, and he’d been to a state Grammar and would have been handicapped, he looked elsewhere.
    I can not imagine he was alone.
    How many A*, A, A, B [Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Further Maths] candidates can a university afford to pass up? They’d better be pretty certain that conceptualisation is going to turn up a stream of gold dust to make up the difference.

  5. Ant Bagshaw says:

    Further reading on the question of attainment by background: https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/wps/WP201431.pdf

    “There has been less work on socio-economic differences in degree acquisition in recent years, although Crawford (2014, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/secondary-school-characteristics-and-university-participation) and HEFCE (2014) explore the relationship between the characteristics of the school attended prior to university and degree class. Both studies show that those from better performing schools are more likely to achieve higher degree classes than those from worse performing schools, but that this relationship is reversed once account is taken of an individual’s attainment on entry to university. This suggests that, conditional on attainment, those from the worst-performing schools are likely to outperform those from the best-performing schools once at
    university.”

  6. Bradbury Smith says:

    The readings posted by Ant Bagshaw links to research conducted by Claire Crawford. It is further developed in Family Background & University Success (OUP, 2017) co-authored by Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden, John Micklewright, & Anna Vignoles.

    These authors conclude that weaker prior attainment is the major barrier explaining why students from less affluent backgrounds are less likely to attend higher status institutions. A minor barrier is GCSE and A-level choice, ie reduced propensity to study enabling subjects. The authors advocate the following main remedy: “to continue to improve ethe school system and help to raise the achievement levels of students from poorer backgrounds.” (p.146) The supplementary remedy recommended is provision of better information about subject choice.

    With respect to the role Universities might play, the authors quote research which develops the findings reported in the links Ant Bagshaw provides. It is the exactly the same evidence that Jessica Benson cites in response #3 above; “our research shows that individuals who attend lower performing schools go on to do better at university, on average, than those who attend higher performing schools for a given level of achievement on entry.” (p.148) They find that the same is not true, on average, when comparing those from lower socio-economic backgrounds or low participation neighbourhoods.

    The authors qualify their findings as follows: “Further work is needed to assess the extent of contextualised admissions going on in the university system and its impact on student entry, retention, and achievement” and “contextualised admissions need to be done appropriately and with sufficient support for students who might otherwise struggle.” (p.149)

  7. Jessica Benson says:

    I can’t find anything in the Claire Crawford IFS report to suggest that students from less advantaged backgrounds who enter university with lower grades are found to be able to achieve the same outcomes as those entering with higher grades from more advantaged backgrounds.

    In fact, the report seems to conclude the opposite:

    “That is not to say that no individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds will go on
    to outperform their more advantaged counterparts; simply that it is not true on average, thus
    presenting a greater challenge for universities to identify those from lower socio-economic
    backgrounds with strong potential to succeed.”

    So, while ‘possible’ in the case of individuals, it’s not found to be the case in general – which surely we need if a policy is going to be usefully applied to all students meeting certain contextualized admissions criteria?

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