Applicants to higher education from less advantaged backgrounds are much less likely than others to achieve the high academic entry qualifications usually required by the most selective universities.
For example, if higher-tariff providers in England wanted to admit the highest-performing ten per cent of free school meal-eligible pupils from state schools, this would mean admitting everyone with qualifications roughly equivalent to at least BCC at A level. Similarly, if medium-tariff providers wanted to admit the next highest-performing ten percent of free school meal-eligible pupils, this would mean admitting everyone with DDD and above at A level.
It will be therefore hard to meet Office for Students (OfS) targets for near-equal representation of socio-economic groups in the most selective tiers of higher education by 2038 unless more applicants are accepted with lower prior qualifications.
This provides a clear opportunity to use a strong contextualised admissions approach, whereby lower offers are focused solely on applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such a focus is justified because of the increasing evidence that, for the most disadvantaged students, prior attainment scores do not generally reflect their true potential.
Our evidence indicates that a contextualised approach to admissions, involving the reduction of academic entry requirements for disadvantaged learners, is mathematically necessary in order to achieve wider access to higher education for disadvantaged students.
Scotland has led the way in formal contextualised admissions, along with some higher education providers in other home countries, but the practice is not yet widespread, and according to research undertaken for the Sutton Trust, most reductions offered are very modest, such as just one or two grades.
Based on our evidence, we contend that three main steps are needed for a strong and fair contextualised admissions approach.
The sector needs to agree on a secure way of identifying those applicants who are genuinely disadvantaged, without also falsely identifying many more applicants who are not actually disadvantaged. This means using only verified individual-level measures of contextual disadvantage, such as free school meal status as confirmed by the applicant’s school, or low household income as verified by Department for Work and Pensions or HMRC records.
OfS advocates the use of the area-level indicator POLAR, which shows how high (or low) higher education participation is in any postcode. In Scotland, contextualised admissions policy is based on another area-level measure – the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Both have the same flaws, because measures based on which postcode area an applicant comes from are neither precise nor accurate.
Identification should never rely on area-level measures such as POLAR to determine who is and who is not contextually disadvantaged. Our review of available contextual indicators for use in widening participation suggests that this would be likely to create as much injustice as it prevents, or more.
For example, only 10 per cent of students who come from the 20 per cent lowest participation postcodes, according to POLAR, had been objectively disadvantaged by being eligible for free school meals at age 15. Only 12 per cent of students who had been objectively disadvantaged by being free school meal-eligible at age 15 were from the 20 per cent lowest participation post-codes. This means that around 90 per cent of applicants to higher education given contextualised consideration under OfS guidelines will be no more disadvantaged than most other applicants from other areas. Moreover, 88 per cent of the actual disadvantaged students will just be ignored by a process intended to help them. This is absurd. Other post-code measures such as SIMD, IMD, ACORN or IDACI might be slightly better, but they still will not accurately reflect the characteristics of specific individuals.
Set the right entry tariff
The second step in contextualised admissions is to set a suitable reduced entry tariff for contextually disadvantaged learners for each institution and course. The evidence suggests that this could be at least as low as BCC at A level for contextually disadvantaged learners entering higher-tariff universities.
We have looked at the range of prior qualification levels for past entries to high, medium and lower tariff institutions. It is clear that higher entry qualifications are related to higher chances of completing a degree course (and of gaining a higher class degree). But, as the graph below shows, the slope is quite flat and gets even flatter at the highest entry qualification end – meaning that the returns on higher levels of entry qualification decrease.
For example, those entering the most selective universities with BCC grades had more than 80 per cent chance of successfully completing a degree. This is higher than for even the most qualified entrants to medium- and lower-tariff institutions, and not much lower than for those entering the most selective providers with AAA grades. There is therefore considerable scope for high-tariff providers to reduce entry requirements quite substantially for the most disadvantaged students.
The relationship between prior qualification level and degree classification is similar, but slightly stronger.
Helping students to thrive
In order to ensure that a fairer admissions process also leads to fairer outcomes, the third step in planning contextualised admissions is therefore to do as much as possible to support all learners to fulfil their potential at and beyond higher education.
Of course, the higher the chances of success the better, but the precise level already varies between individuals, providers, and courses. The chances will also improve as more contextually admitted students appear in universities, and resources are used to support their progression.
The authors’ research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, grant numbers ES/N01166X/1 and ES/N012046/.