From the perspective of students, most applications to higher education are never read by a human being. From the UCAS website to the generation of an offer letter, the process is largely an automated one predicated on predicted grades.
When the actual grades appear in August those who match are in, and to be honest those who nearly match are usually in too.
Some institutions do a bit more scrutiny on borderline cases. Clearing students can expect more scrutiny as they will, at some point, have to speak to someone at the institution they hope to study at. But the calculus of how close to full the courses with what your grades look like hugely overpowers whatever it was you put in the UCAS statement or say on the phone. Unless you are applying for a super-niche course or from a very unconventional background, no one will ever read your UCAS statement.
Adding a contextual component to this grim process is a matter of using the demographic data on your form (where you live and where you went to school as a proxy for deprivation) to put the thumb on the A level scales a little. It doesn’t quite humanise admissions, but it attempts to address one key criticism – that where you went to school or how much your family earn has a huge impact on what grades you get. This morning’s HEPI report notes the excellent work of Vikki Boliver and her team at Durham – just one percent of young people on free school meals achieve AAA or better, compared to twenty per cent of all other state pupils.
The average prospective student knows little of the reality of admissions, so we can hardly be surprised when most don’t know if their university makes lower offers to disadvantaged students, and a sizable majority think they do. Both answers are correct – institutions probably do make lower offers (via clearing, or just as an early attempt to hit student number targets with a low or unconditional offer) to disadvantaged students, but they may not “know” this (in the strict sense of including it as a factor in their decision-making) at the time.
Context in context
The best contextual offer is an unconditional one. A decision is made on the first seventeen-and-a-bit years of a prospective student’s life and the stressful six months before they start (including those A level results that correlate so closely with deprivation) is disregarded.
However, policy-makers have taken a variety of idiotic stands on this issue so we have to go to the next best option – making lower offers to people we feel deserve them. The fairest way to do this is to interview people in order to properly get to know them, their lives, their ambitions. But this flagrant display of academic judgement would be expensive and potentially invite litigation.
Like every other major problem in HE, we instead apply large amounts of data. If we know where someone lives, what school they went to, and whether they identify as disabled we can approximate the effects of these characteristics on A level results, and then simply take this into account on calculating a reduced tariff on the standard offer.
Students agree (72%) that applications should take into account student backgrounds, but the survey sample is deeply split (47% to 45%) on whether this should mean a lower offer. This is a nuanced response and should be analysed as such. Students feel overwhelmingly that context should be a factor in offer making, but don’t think necessarily think that a straight tariff reduction is a way to do this.
Perhaps students feel that the wider sweep of their personal qualities and life course is what lands them a place. Or what should land them a place. There’s certainly little concern that students without the requisite grades are not intellectually capable of study – at least not among the students actually on the course (54% of the sample agree).
“Required” grades are a status symbol, and like many other status symbols they are closely correlated with advantage and background – for both institutions and applicants. Many subjects pay little heed to A level results – practical arts subjects are more closely focused on a portfolio of work, and medicine has made huge steps towards admitting rounded students with interests beyond their compulsory-level studies.
For prospective students who require additional support gain specific skills required for study, integrated foundation years have done much to allow access to intensive courses for students for disadvantaged backgrounds. Again, the mainstream of policy opinion has recently turned against this idea – Augar memorably recommends against the funding of these programmes, for cost reasons.