Calls to widen access to higher education, especially to elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, can be aligned with merit-based selection using contextualised university admissions. Contextualisation of prior attainment aims to transform raw GCSE and A levels into a more valuable measure of academic potential.
Most universities rely on conventional measures of prior attainment (GCSE and A level) and supplement these with other pieces of information (UCAS forms, admissions tests or interviews). It is a widely held belief that the majority of these measures underestimate the potential of educationally disadvantaged applicants.
Attending a low-performing secondary school, perhaps confronting educational setbacks such as frequent teacher changes, disruptive classmates or a lack of resources can negatively impact academic achievement. Whether and how this impact can be quantified is a matter of ongoing research, but it is safe to assume that educational disadvantage has tangible consequences, limiting the ability of gifted pupils to shine.
Contextualisation in practice
Many UK universities currently contextualise undergraduate applications which, in practice, means that disadvantaged applicants are viewed more favourably. In these terms, disadvantage covers a broad range of characteristics from attending a poorly performing school to living in a socio-economically deprived area, or an area with traditionally low rates of progression to HE.
However, although many universities claim to contextualise, exactly how this is implemented varies greatly. A more transparent and consistent approach is needed so that applicants clearly understand how they are being judged.
Many universities actively seek to admit greater numbers of applicants from traditionally underrepresented groups. It can be argued that by admitting more disadvantaged applicants, elite universities help to break the cycle of inequality, possibly by setting minimum quotas.
Extreme measures such as quotas are at odds with the stated aim of many UK universities to select applicants based on merit alone.
Efforts to widen access to elite universities must perform the delicate balancing act of increasing social mobility and ensuring that the core principles of merit-based selection are upheld. Multiple studies have now demonstrated that UK school-based measures of disadvantage help to identify students who are likely to shine once at university. But this is not necessarily true of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups who are commonly associated with relative underachievement at university.
While it is important to carefully examine the possible causes for this, such as a lack of encouragement or support, contextual admissions decisions that give preference to applicants from these socio-economically disadvantaged groups may be difficult to justify in the short term.
A closer look at the metrics
Evidence suggests that university students from low-performing schools often outperform those from higher performing schools, given equal prior attainment. This is commonly interpreted to reflect inflated GCSE and A level grades for educationally advantaged pupils, perhaps linked to greater levels of training and exam preparation.
This is not to deny the many positive benefits that attending an elite school is likely to confer, from high-quality teaching to pastoral care. The argument is simply that training and exam preparation also have a strong impact on grades.
None of the evidence discussed above will come as a surprise to those involved in university admissions. The real question is what can be done to ensure fair admissions.
A strong case can be made that, given equal GCSE and A level grades, educationally disadvantaged applicants should be given preference throughout the admissions process. Many universities are attempting to do this already, but how can educational disadvantage be quantified? For instance, is a simple comparison between applicant and school average grades enough? Unfortunately not.
Although school performance does, in part, measure characteristics that directly reflect levels of disadvantage (such as low-quality teaching or limited resources), the aggregate measure is invariably influenced by other factors such as school selectivity. High-performing schools commonly attract a stronger cohort of pupils from the outset, helping to boost GCSE and A level school performance in later years. Therefore, school performance is frequently influenced by factors unrelated to disadvantage per se.
A coordinated approach
Given the availability of student outcome data and the pressing need to provide a fair and consistent method of contextual admissions throughout the UK, I believe the government must do more to address this issue.
In a recent open letter, the University of Cambridge pointed out that this problem can’t be tackled by individual institutions alone. One concrete first step is for the government to prioritise the release of a comprehensive school-level database for use by university admissions teams.
Currently, universities are forced to stitch together information from a variety of sources, while important school characteristics, such as the spread of pupil attainment, remain unavailable.
Secondly, a centralised effort should be made to analyse the relationship between school attainment and later university attainment on a school-by-school basis. This will help to identify high ability pupils who have not been given the opportunity to succeed, firstly by identifying pupils who have performed well relative to their educational context and secondly by identifying pupils who are likely to progress rapidly once at university.
Much of the data to do this is available now. The government is able to link university student outcome data to prior attainment, as well as post-16 school information. Analysis of these datasets should be undertaken by universities, together with the Office for Students.
Although most universities are working to tackle student diversity, the current reliance on individual institutions to solve the problem is neither efficient nor reliable. A coordinated government effort to provide reliable contextual measures, particularly relating to educational disadvantage, is essential to ensure fairer decision making for all future university applicants.