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:
- Universities should use contextual data in their admissions process to open up access to students from less privileged backgrounds.
- 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.
- 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.
- There should be greater transparency from universities when communicating how contextual data is used.
- Foundation year provision should be increased, with greater targeting of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Participation in outreach programmes should be shared as a contextual indicator across universities.
- 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:
- Make the reporting of outreach spending more consistent, and provide uniform, detailed guidelines for what should be included.
- Manage a public database of different institutions’ headline approaches to contextualised admissions.
- 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.