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Putting fairness in context: using data to widen access to university

Sam Butters of the Fair Education Alliance calls for more transparency in the use of contextualised admissions in HE to help widen participation for the most disadvantaged.
This article is more than 3 years old

Sam Butters is CEO of the Fair Education Alliance (FEA).

Children progressing through education do not all have the same chances of success.

It is well-evidenced that parents’ income, the quality of school attended, and a myriad of other background factors affect educational outcomes for young people, including how well they do in their exams and their likelihood of progressing onto higher education (HE).

The HE sector has recognised this problem, and, as of 2008, all higher education institutions (HEIs) were mandated to submit annual plans for how they contribute to solving this fundamental injustice.

When it comes to the diversity of student bodies, universities have mostly worked on outreach programmes to raise awareness and aspirations. However, these appear to have had only marginal effects for the most selective universities, partly because such universities tend to have selection processes with high levels of competition and entry tariffs. They face a challenge in the fact that there is a much smaller pool of disadvantaged applicants that can live up to the set expectations, including the required grades, at that point in their lives.

Use of contextual data in admissions

To overcome this challenge and to recognise the additional barriers disadvantaged children face, many universities have undertaken new approaches to the admissions process, through “contextualisation” in admissions processes. This is where data is matched to applicants to assess an applicant’s prior attainment and potential to succeed in higher education in the context of the circumstances in which their attainment has been obtained.

I lead the Fair Education Alliance (FEA), a coalition committed to closing the gaps in educational outcomes including the gap in access to selective universities. In light of the increasing use of contextualised admissions practices, we commissioned research by the University of Exeter on the subject. We want to make a step change in widening participation to the most selective universities and, through this research, we wanted to shine a light on how contextual data is used in practice at highly selective universities so we can share and disseminate best practice across the sector. In addition, we wanted to make recommendations on how we can better ensure institutions have access to and use contextual data in ways that will make education in the UK fairer.

The research has shown that the use of contextualised data in admissions has become increasingly accepted over the last five years and the practice more widespread. Perceptions of contextualised admissions have changed over time, and the sector has come a long way since the University of Bristol came under attack for prioritising applicants from lower performing schools in the early 2000s.  

However, whilst contextualisation has become widely accepted, it is applied in a wealth of ways across HEIs and it is often unclear to applicants exactly which practices are undertaken. Key concerns are now less around reaching a consensus that contextualised admissions can be conducted fairly (and to the benefit of universities), but rather creating a shared terminology, a common understanding of good data use, and thereby increase transparency.

Tomorrow, on Tuesday 10 July, we will launch a Fair Education Alliance report (based on the research from the University of Exeter) with calls to action on how we can improve the effectiveness of the use of contextual data.

Transparency, buy-in and improved access to data

First, the HE sector is at a point where we need to move beyond the debate of whether or not we should use contextualised data in admissions and focus on how to do it more efficiently and effectively. We are calling for the Office for Students (OfS) and government to provide public support to institutions using contextualised admissions and with this endorsement, we can move forward on ways to improve the access and use of data.

If you go back ten years plus, institutions were using it in very pioneering ways, and there were lightning bolts of criticism about the impact it might be having on standards and on potential applicants from more advantaged backgrounds. As contextualised data has been accepted and become more established, the debate has changed to how to do it more efficiently and effectively.

HE stakeholder interview

Second, we are calling for improved access to relevant data for institutions. The chosen data/indicators used in contextual admissions are critical to its effectiveness and determine to what extent the practice will reach the pool of applicants it is intended to reach. The data used by institutions determines how “disadvantage” is defined, and currently, a wide range of different approaches are adopted.

The issue of inconsistencies across the UK nations and a problem of missing data is highlighted as a particular concern in the research. Using area-based measures (such as POLAR) potentially offers better coverage but selectors cannot be assured that every applicant will have the same background characteristics as their peers. Alternative and more accurate measures than the participation of local areas using POLAR, such as free school meal eligibility (FSM-eligibility) and the multiple equality measure quintile (MEM-quintile), should be made available to HEIs at the application stage. Evidence shows that these measures are more effective at providing meaningful information about a young person’s background and would improve the legitimacy and effectiveness of contextualised admissions practices.

Above all, the variety of contextual data sources and measures used is making it difficult for potential applicants and their advisers to assess where and how their chances might be enhanced, and the benefit of encouraging more applicants from non-traditional backgrounds is lost. It is essential that the sector should make sure that applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds are aware that they may be eligible for additional consideration at institutions they may otherwise think are out of their reach.

However our research showed that currently careers advisors do not have confidence in this area to advise students to reach for more selective universities, or have the information to hand about which background factors matter to which universities. Schools reported that the admissions landscape is confusing and that wide variability in practices has led to low levels of trust in admissions processes. These views were mirrored by HEIs who generally thought the understanding of contextualised admissions in schools was low.

We are calling for the OfS to require HEIs to publicise what kinds of data they use in their contextual admissions process, stated on the UCAS application page for each individual course. The most selective universities should publish joint guidance for careers leaders, outlining which contextual factors they each take into considerations, and update such guidance annually.

Greater consistency around principles and terminology will also help with this transparency. OfS should facilitate discussions across the HE sector with the aim to settle on shared terminology when it comes to admissions, to decrease the risk of confusion and misperceptions.

A step change in widening participation

It has been positive to see in the research that contextualised admissions practices have been increasingly adopted by HEIS. We are now at a point where to make a step change in widening participation through this process we need to demystify the complexity and inconsistency of practices in this space – how can it help young people if they either aren’t aware that their background might affect their offer or it is too complicated to work out which institutions might take what into account? But, with a commitment to these changes on access to data, transparency and consistency from policymakers and admissions departments, together with buy-in from careers leaders, we can use this practice as a tool to make a step change in widening participation.

Thank you to FEA members Allen and Overy, University of Manchester, University of Oxford, UCAS, and The Access Project for their support in developing this report, and to the University of Exeter for their research.

One response to “Putting fairness in context: using data to widen access to university

  1. Interesting and well written article Sam. Whilst I am a firm believer in fair access to university, one mustn’t lose sight of potential implications of CA to the student success stage, especially if institutional context isn’t taken into account. There is national evidence from HEFCE’s final report ( – see Fig 15 in particular) that, contrary to what is often assumed, disadvantaged students are less likely to gain a 2:1 or First (and less likely to successfully complete their course) than more advantaged students, even after controlling for pre-entry qualifications and other influential factors. We can argue until the cows come home about the most appropriate WP proxies to be used, but even if we assume there is no gap after controlling for entry qualifications, logically there is likely to be a gap if we give disadvantaged students lower offers. Unless, perhaps, they are accompanied by successful targeted pastoral and academic support mechanisms.

    I’ve heard some commentators argue that contextual admissions should be based on whether or not applicants went to an overall ‘poor-performing’ school. But doesn’t this approach merely risk us disproportionately giving contextual offers to the most advantaged students within these schools, thus defeating the object? We already know that disadvantaged students (FSM, IMD etc) do less well than their more advantaged counterparts within the same school, so school level proxies alone are insufficient.

    Clearly it’s a bit of a minefield, but we should be wary of making overarching assumptions about the oft-unproven benefits of contextual admissions in terms of fair access. Without institution-specific context and evidence, this could result in the unwanted combination of widening participation and setting up disadvantaged students to fail.

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