What do we mean when we talk about ‘selective’ universities?

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Adopting language already in common use elsewhere, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has taken to calling those universities who admit the fewest students from low-income households the ‘selective’ universities. But what does ‘selective’ mean in this context?

Is it accurate to apply the term only to those higher education institutions admitting more privileged students? What does it do to the broader perception – and perhaps, more importantly, the self-perception – of those students from poorer backgrounds when it is implied that they are not attending a ‘selective’ university? In the context of the recent Green Paper, where do the best prospects of driving social mobility lie?

In the 2014 intake, 26% of new UK undergraduates entering Nottingham Trent University came from households with a combined parental income of £15k or less, whilst 33% were from the two lowest HE participation quintiles according to POLAR2 data. Furthermore, all of these students – and their peers – are studying at one of the most popular universities in the UK for domestic applicants to undergraduate programmes. In that year, NTU received 33,950 applications from UK students and 7,515 acceptances. The ratio of applications to acceptances was 4.5 to 1.

Clearly, both the university and these potential students were making choices. Indeed, for some subjects at NTU – such as Biomedical Sciences – competition for places was very intense in that recruitment cycle; the application to acceptance ratio here was 5.5 to 1. Nonetheless, 32% of students who joined NTU to study Biomedical Sciences were from the poorest households (that is with a household income of £15K or less) whilst 35% came from low participation wards. Both of these figures are higher than the average for all of our courses noted above. This shows that NTU maintains a strong level of recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds across its high tariff courses where it is being most selective.

In these circumstances, ‘selective’ appears at best to be a relative term and one that seems to be applied based not on any analysis of these data. Presumably, it derives from assumptions about distinctions already extant in the sector; perhaps, for example, some commentators use ‘selective’ as equivalent to membership of the Russell Group. If so, in the same year, a typical member of the RG received around 36,900 applications from UK students and 5,500 acceptances, a ratio of 6.1. Is that difference sufficient to label the RG member ‘selective’ and thus, by implication, NTU ‘non-selective’?

The example of Biomedical Sciences shows that NTU combines high selectivity and strong recruitment from poorer households when it is in direct competition for entrants with universities in the Russell Group. NTU maintains selectivity – albeit at a lower level – and widens participation for those courses where it is not in direct competition with the RG for students e.g. where NTU delivers courses also run at RG institutions and where its tariff is less than 300 points. Taking English, for example, the ratio of applications to acceptances is 5.1 and 30% of applicants are from the lowest income households.

Let’s return to the picture where NTU is in direct competition with RG institutions. A comparison of high tariff undergraduate courses at NTU and similar courses at RG universities showed that in 2014 NTU maintained a stronger level of recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds across these courses than was demonstrated on broadly similar programmes in RG institutions.

Focusing on NTU courses with an average student tariff of at least 300 points, UCAS provided admissions cycle data for these courses at NTU and similar courses at RG members. Inevitably, there was an element of informed conjecture involved in determining the comparable courses. In the event, they represented a broad disciplinary mix encompassing: marketing; civil engineering; biomedical science; chemistry; mathematics; physics; psychology; and law. Overall, the sample looked at courses which attracted about 20% of NTU’s total applicants and acceptances in that cycle.

The analysis found that NTU made a similar level of offers to applications from widening participation (WP) backgrounds as to those from more advantaged backgrounds. Typically, the offer rate to WP applicants was considerably lower than their non-WP counterparts across the Russell Group institutions examined (Figure 1).


WP applicants receiving an offer converted their offers into acceptances at a similar rate as non-WP applicants across NTU and RG members, suggesting that WP applicants are as likely to meet the requirements of their offer and make a firm acceptance as non-WP applicants (Figure 2).


This combination of offer and acceptance rates across these courses at NTU resulted in 33% of NTU’s accepted applicants being from WP backgrounds, using the POLAR2 proxy. The comparative average for the RG courses was 23% (Figure 3).


There are some problems about the numbers that make the analysis suggestive rather than definitive: for example, the absence of data on the household income of applicants (although it is probably fair to assume that NTU receives more applications from poor households); and the threshold tariff of 300 for courses at NTU not necessarily equating to that used within the RG institutions.

Overall, then NTU is a ‘selective’ university. Crucially, on our highest tariff courses, whether or not these are in direct competition with RG members, NTU maintains a high proportion of applicants from lower income households. Furthermore, NTU maintains these applicants through the conversion process and admits a significant percentage each autumn. This may show selection bias towards students from less privileged backgrounds, but it is selection nonetheless.

Finally, and returning to the aspiration in the Green Paper that seeks to enhance social mobility through increased participation in higher education, this analysis suggests that the fastest way to achieve this would be to deconstruct the current hierarchy of esteem based on institutional longevity and research breadth and replace it with one that for students and employers was centred on the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework.

Note: the more detailed analysis that underpins elements of this analysis are available from David Woolley; please contact him at: david.woolley@ntu.ac.uk. UCAS provided the admissions data through EXACT reports: 001261, 001262, 001289, 001290 and 001376.

3 thoughts on “What do we mean when we talk about ‘selective’ universities?”

  1. Mike Picken says:

    During the 1990s at a meeting with the compiler of the Times Good University (sic) Guide to discuss the calculation methodology of the various measures they used, I suggested (slightly tongue-in-cheek) that a measure of ‘popularity’, in the form of the ratio of the number of applicants to places, could both be easily and robustly calculated and form a useful indicator in their rankings. I argued that a measure of the pressure for places was an indicator of whether the applicant base (to whom their publication was directed at) regarded it as a ‘good’ place to study, and therefore told us a lot about reputation and status.

    They ridiculed this by responding that any measure that put Oxford and Cambridge Universities at the bottom of its rankings would not have any credibility whatsoever in a publication called the ‘Good University (sic) Guide’.

    The selectivity of Oxbridge is not in the number of applicants they get per place (among the lowest in the sector), but that only limited numbers of people feel able to apply in the first instance (reinforced by the fact that for many decades you have not been able to apply to both).

    The idea of the ‘best’ or ‘most selective’ universities put about by successive governments is really an Oxbridge ‘look-a-like’, and not anything inherent about the process of getting a place and certainly not a judgement on the quality of the institution.

  2. Tom Pullman says:

    This is an interesting analysis. I must say that my intuitive definition of “selectivity” would be the proportion of applications resulting in offers; on this measure, even the RG (at 80% on average, going on figure 1) does not look particularly selective.

    Mike’s point above is a very important one.

  3. Mike Picken says:

    Maybe the definition of a selective university is one that gets invited to Downing Street meetings?

    “Creating greater opportunities at England’s universities for those from disadvantaged and black and ethnic minority backgrounds (BME) was the focus of a special Downing Street meeting today (1 February 2016)….

    Those attending included …. representatives from the Russell Group and the vice-chancellors of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and King’s College London. ”
    (Press Release from No 10 Downing Street).

    Good to know that the Government is only taking advice from those with the worst track record. I think it’s called ‘evidence informed policy making’ (sic).

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