Giving communities power: Developing contextual admissions with parents

Charlotte Hallahan, Nia Oatley and Asha Noor explain how engagement with the community can help a university develop an admissions policy that takes account of context

Charlotte Hallahan is Senior Policy and Communications Officer at The Brilliant Club

Nia Oatley is Communities Manager at The Brilliant Club 

Asha Noor is Parent Power Leader at Cardiff Parent Power 

In October last year, a Cardiff parent group successfully campaigned for Cardiff University to improve how it shares information on how students can apply for contextual admissions.

This was a fantastic win for Cardiff Parent Power, a group of parents and carers who work to enact educational change in their local areas and will have a positive impact on how the university engages with Cardiff families going forward.

There are currently significant disparities in access to university study, with students from low-income backgrounds less likely to progress to higher education than their peers.

Less advantaged students are still 14 times less likely to proceed to higher education, and the gap in entry rates between the highest and the lowest participation areas has shrunk by only 2 percentage points since 2006.

This informs the mission of widening participation teams across the sector – universities aware of this disparity and adapt their approach to admissions with the aim that all students who apply have a fair chance, regardless of their background.

This often means thinking up and implementing “Contextual Admissions” policies – to ensure that the background of a university applicant, and any barriers they may face, are considered as part of the admissions process.

This approach can include giving students from underrepresented backgrounds guaranteed interviews, a reduction in grade requirements for less advantaged students, or additional consideration when deciding whether to give an offer.

But not all UK universities make contextual offers, and some only offer them sparingly or on specific courses. There are currently no regulations to ensure that contextual admissions are adopted sector-wide, not much evidence on how they work in practice, and little on whether they are having a real impact on the equality of university access.

In 2023, 44 higher education institutions were listed on the Sutton Trust’s Contextual Offers tool for UK Universities. Despite more universities adopting contextual admissions, we are yet to see the disadvantage gap significantly narrow.

Parent power

It is not only important that universities adopt contextual admissions policies – students, families, and schools need to understand how to navigate them.

Parents and carers could be actively involved in the design and communication of contextual admissions policies. It is important that parents are aware that contextual admissions exist and feel confident that university admissions are fair and equitable, and that their family can use them if they need to.

Parents in some UK communities are already beginning to work with universities to ensure that such approaches put local families and their needs at their centre.

Cardiff Parent Power’s campaign was born out of a realisation that many local parents either weren’t aware of contextual admissions offered by universities or weren’t able to access information on how they work. This meant that, for many of the parent leaders, the process of campaigning was also a process of learning.

Asha, one of the parent leaders who led the campaign, spoke about how important it is for parents to understand, and have the opportunity to feed into, Contextual Admissions policies:

The value of parents and carers should not be underestimated. Education starts at home, so if parents know what is happening in their kids’ education, they encourage for their kids to revise, do more homework […] But I had absolutely no idea what Contextual Admissions meant, and only since I joined Cardiff Parent Power did I find out [what they are]. This is astounding because if it’s meant to help students the parents should know about it so they can encourage their kids to apply to university.

Drawing on their lived experience, minority ethnic parent leaders in Cardiff were able to share with the university that they were uncomfortable sharing their background information during the application process out of fear of being discriminated against.

But given that the collecting of such data is essential to enable the benefits of contextual admissions to be realised, when the group shared these reservations with Cardiff University, it looked again at how they communicate their policies to local families.

The parent leaders met with the admissions and outreach teams at the university with five key asks. And at the end of October, the university agreed to implement all five of these, which are listed below, along with the policy changes made in response by the university:

Ask 1: Add a bold and clear section with information on contextual admissions at the beginning of the Cardiff University prospectus and ensure that the opportunities that Contextual Admissions create for eligible students are explained.

  • Cardiff University will include this in the 2025 prospectus, and the undergraduate applying page on their website has already been updated.

Ask 2: Include bold and clear course-specific information on contextual admissions and contextual offers where applicable in course profile.

  • Channels for obtaining feedback on the accessibility of new webpages have been established, and the university are ensuring information relating to contextual admissions stands out on course pages.

Ask 3: Create outreach events for pupils in local schools, especially multicultural ones, which explain that pupils can apply to university using contextual admissions.

  • Cardiff University staff are now encouraged to promote the updated contextual admissions page, and this information is explained at all outreach events.

Ask 4: Ensure the school liaison team are consistently visiting Cardiff schools and sharing relevant information about university, UCAS applications and summer schools.

  • The team at the university are frequently undertaking school visits and sharing up to date information.

Ask 5: Create a video about contextual admissions to share on Cardiff University’s website, featuring current students who received contextual offers.

  • The university is planning the video as part of its longer-term goals to promote contextual offers.

Understanding community needs

Throughout the campaign, Cardiff University were able to better understand the needs of the community that they were working to serve, as well as building trust with that community.

This was an important step for Cardiff Parent Power, but the parent leaders also hope that this will be a crucial first step in the university sector – that more institutions take an important lesson from this campaign and begin to listen to their own communities when considering if their contextual admissions policies actually work.

Asha, one of the parent leaders, said:

I still think minority ethnic people throughout Wales could be helped more but Cardiff University have done an excellent job in engaging with [us] and listening to our concerns.

Asha feels that Cardiff Parent Power’s win opens up opportunities for other higher education institutions:

I hope many universities in England and Wales will follow the lead of Cardiff University and put Contextual Admissions on their prospectuses so many more children can get into universities.

Indeed, local families can provide practical advice on how universities can show a real commitment to supporting the outcomes of young people in their local areas.

Contextual admissions are an important tool for ensuring equality of access, but universities should be thinking about how they can make the most out of their policies, how they can make them accessible, and how they can use them to build trust in their local communities.

Parent Power is run nationally by The Brilliant Club. If you’re interested to learn how developing a Parent Power chapter in your local area could support your civic mission, get in touch with Jimmy Pickering, our Director of Communities.

You can find the tool developed by The Sutton Trust support students to find which universities offer contextual offers here

Leave a Reply