The key to contextualised admissions

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.  

2 responses to “The key to contextualised admissions

  1. Interesting article Sam. As I think you hinted, making contextualised offers based on average school performance is a whole different ball game to making such offers based on individual pupils’ socio-economic disadvantage. By using average school performance as the proxy, chances are that contextual offers would be made to advantaged students within the overall disadvantaged schools. If we look at the attainment of a given school and split this by geographical deprivation indicators (e.g. IMD, IDACI, EST, ACORN, whatever your poison, but avoid POLAR if you can) I’d put money on there being a considerable difference in the average attainment of pupils living in the most deprived areas and those residing in the more affluent neighbourhoods (I’ve tested this locally). Logically, therefore, to give contextual offers based on the average attainment of the school will disproportionately favour the most advantaged pupils within that school. I’d suggest you’d get a very different scenario if you used individual pupil indicators rather than school average. And then what happens? The whole rationale for making contextualised offers is compromised. We know that, across the sector, WP students have poorer outcomes at university even when taking account of prior qualifications and other influential factors. By giving contextual (e.g. lower) offers to such students, logically this student success gap would widen. If the sector can live with that, fine. But universities are judged on both access and success. I’ve often heard the argument to “use average school attainment instead” to determine contextual offers. This might seem well meaning, but I think it misses the ‘context’………

  2. Hi Mike, Thanks for the feedback. Yes, I agree that looking at an individual school there is likely to be a fairly strong relationship between pupil attainment and socio-economic disadvantage (based on IMD, ACORN etc). As you say, based on this we might expect socio-economically disadvantaged groups to lose out if contextualisation is based on educational disadvantage alone.

    However, I think the important point to consider is that being one of the more socio-economically advantaged pupils at your school does not imply that you are advantaged relative to the national context. Although it may appear that some disadvantaged groups (e.g. ACORN/POLAR) will lose out, in practice I do not think this will be the case (especially when admissions is highly competitive). Top performing pupils from a standard comprehensive may indeed come from moderately advantaged socio-economic backgrounds relative to their school peers, but when compared to Eton pupils applying to the same university course the same pupils are now considered socio-economically disadvantaged.

    I think there is lots of work to be done to understand in more detail the reasons for the relative underperformance of some WP groups, and what can be done about it. Although it side steps some of these issues, contextualisation based on educational disadvantage has the benefit that A) overall numbers of traditionally underrepresented students will increase, and B) the method is consistent with merit based selection.

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