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Admissions: a contextualised tale of two reviews

Two concurrent reviews of admissions practice feel like a lot for Colin McCaig, who looks back to Schwartz to understand what may follow.
This article is more than 4 years old

Dr Colin McCaig is a Professor of Higher Education Policy at Sheffield Hallam University's Sheffield Institute of Education.

Universities UK announced a review of admissions earlier this month; strangely enough we heard that the Office for Students will be announcing their own review earlier this year. Aside from allusions to London buses and leadership party elections coming in pairs in 2019, what is going on here?

Fifteen years after the Schwartz Review of “Fair Admissions to Higher Education” (and 11 years after I led a research project into the impact of Schwartz three years on for Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA), why is this back on the agenda?

We can return to the politics later; for now it is worth reiterating Schwartz’s five principles and the extent to which his seminal report changed the nature of admissions in a rapidly marketising context since those heady days when variable (maximum £3,000) fees and the Office for Fair Access were mere phrases in a Higher Education Bill.

Schwartz: transparency and professionalism

Schwartz’s principles were that admissions were: to be transparent and provide consistent information to applicants; to select students who are able to fulfil their potential; to use reliable and valid assessment methods to assess applicants’ potential; to minimise barriers to participation; and to enhance the professionalism of admissions decision-making by institutions.

We found in general that Schwartz had a beneficial impact on how admissions policies were operationalised across the sector. There was certainly enhanced transparency and centralised (and thus more professional) admissions practices were being introduced: almost half of responding institutions (45%) said they had centralised their systems within those three years since Schwartz.

This centralisation allowed for better linking of admissions and widening participation policy, and allowed institutions to take a more institution-wide approach to strategic numbers planning – using the variable entry-requirement as an internal tariff for each subject. Where institutions needed to keep the entry tariff high, they would often do so by restricting the number of places and shifting those student numbers to other subject disciplines that they wished to support.

Schwartz’s principle of transparency also led to a reduction in the use of testing and interviews in most subjects; there had been some concern that additional assessments was putting off some applicants, but the main driver seems to have been to avoid variations in assessment practices between individual academics.

We found more reported use of contextual admissions criteria (usually long term ill health or disability); however we also found that most institutions did not advertise this fact in course information pages, albeit the Russell Group institutions were more likely to do so. Contextual admissions, of course, are always likely to be more important for institutions that have to justify selection decisions because a) they need a way to differentiate between equally qualified applicants; and b) because they are most likely to be under pressure to use CA to widen participation. This forms an important part of the context for the 2019 reviews.

Attitudes towards diversity: risk aversion in a marketised context?

As part of that 2008 research we tested how admission practices and institutional assumptions had changed since Schwartz by re-asking many of the same survey questions. We found that senior admissions policy respondents reported that their institutions accepted a narrower range of qualifications than they had in 2004 – and where they did accept a wider range they were less likely to publicise the fact – in other words they were pushing the image that they were academically rigorous and applicants shouldn’t apply unless they were taking A levels (even when they would actually consider you with BTECs).

When asked about whether diversity of students was an important aim of the admissions system, the proportion agreeing was 2% higher in 2008; but when asked should universities and colleges choose students partly in order to achieve such a mix, the proportion saying No had grown from 55% to 60% by 2008.

When asked ‘Is it fair for a university or college to make a lower offer to some applicants than to other applicants for the same course’ (to achieve diversity and widen participation) the proportion saying it was fair fell from 76% (2004) to 36.1% (2008).

The proportion agreeing that the applicants’ educational context (the type and nature of school or college attended) should play a role in decision making fell from 65% in 2004 to 51.5% in 2008; and when asked whether it would be fair to extend lower offers on the basis of schools attended, the number agreeing decreased by 11 percentage points since 2004 (from 55% to 44% in 2008).

Risk-version of this kind extended to the nature of Level 3 qualifications they would consider: the 1994 Group and the Russell Group were most likely to identify subjects/qualifications at level 3 that they preferred not to consider. Conversely, University Alliance, MillionPlus and Guild HE institutions more likely to use personal development factors, group interviews and Accreditation of Prior Experimental Learning (APEL) than other groups.

So it was already becoming clear by 2008 that institutional admissions policymaking was beginning to reflect the marketised context, that transparency was emerging in the form of a much clearer signal to applicants of what they would need to achieve to receive an offer, and professionalism was emerging as a centralisation of control over admissions – at the expense of individual academics and departments who traditionally had more discretion about individual applicants who interviewed well, but who subsequently didn’t achieve the necessary grades.

In effect, institutions traded departmental autonomy over admissions for the retention of institutional autonomy over admissions – enabling them to better use student admissions for their own ends, either in terms of the total students they are willing to enrol or the balance of provision across the various disciplines they wished to offer. We also saw echoes of this during the Student Number Control “high grades” regime (2013-2015) when institutions were encouraged to manipulate admissions decisions between disciplinary boundaries within a fixed cap.

In retrospect, Schwartz certainly had a stimulating impact on admissions at a key moment in the development of the marketised system we have now in England. Whilst, along with the Equalities Act (2010), it helped eradicate much of the inequity of a decision-making system reliant on too few (usually pale, male and stale) academics, and no doubt helped usher some institutionally-biased practices out of the door, the new transparent and professional regime certainly reduces discretion and makes institutions more risk-averse – with consequences for widening participation. When departments no longer have the discretion (or the spare numbers) to take a risk on an applicant from a poorer background and the institution can be more hard-nosed about which courses it wants to grow, Schwartz may have made it harder for selective institution to widen participation. Hence, perhaps, the pressure for more to be done on contextualised admissions than what the competitive market has so far produced.

A tale of two reviews

It was noticeable when OfS announced that it was issuing a call for evidence over the autumn that it questioned the idea that competitive behaviour alone could deliver societal goals. The OfS has “general duties on equality of opportunity, quality, choice, value for money and competition considered alongside those on institutional autonomy, efficiency and proportionality” according to a recent presentation from Head of Regulatory Implementation David Smy. This leads them to question the ambition and effectiveness of some institutional plans to improve access and participation. So it becomes clear that the OfS review is primarily driven by the need to widen participation, or at least increase the pressure on those that struggle to achieve that end within the structure of institutional autonomy over admissions. For this reason contextualised admissions are very much on the table (along with post-qualification admissions, another hardy perennial).

Does this amount to a shot across the bows of institutional autonomy? Potentially it does and this may have stimulated the Universities UK response: Alistair Jarvis clearly anticipates an admissions review that is firmly framed in the same language as Schwartz: “Universities will continue to make their own decisions on offers, but the review aims to build greater levels of transparency, trust and public understanding in admissions practices”

Interestingly, back in 2007 when we began the review of Schwartz, we were told by SPA that our research project was not to be about widening participation and that both CA and PQA were off-limits (separate research was ongoing apparently). In effect, we were expected to merely report that the sector had taken Schwartz’s prescription and all would be well – however it became clear that more transparency and centralised professionalism came at the price of a more fair but more risk-averse system that consolidates autonomy and does little to aid widening access. The autumn and winter reviews that take us into 2020 may create fewer headlines than Augar’s recommendations, but for close policy-watchers the key battleground seems likely centre on competing definitions and versions of contextualised admissions – and expect a robust defence of the inviolability of institutional autonomy.

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