The public favours meritocracy when it comes to levelling up and university admissions

A comprehensive new poll from Public First sheds light on the public's attitudes to levelling up. Ed Reza Schwitzer and Jess Lister extract the implications for university admissions

Ed Reza Schwitzer is an Associate Director in the Education Practice at Public First


Jess Lister is a Policy Manager in the Education Practice at Public First

Public opinion in this country has long been rooted in the importance of fair play and an implacable belief in the value of personal responsibility.

On crime, for example, public opinion remains clear on the need to properly punish criminals. On economic policy, work must be seen to “pay”. And – famously – it was the idea of taking back personal control that played such a decisive role in our decision to leave the European Union.

The same fundamental truth applies to education policy. One can appreciate why in the summer of 2020 someone sitting in DfE thought it was fair to use an algorithm to adjust teacher-assessed grades for A levels, given the (now very apparent) scope for rampant grade inflation without it. But they forgot that the British public was likely to abhor the idea that an individual’s success could be judged in this fashion.

Public First’s latest comprehensive new polling, probing public attitudes to levelling up, shows that this is also very evident in debates over access to higher education.

Levelling up admissions

We asked 2,000 members of the public to pick from a number of policy options for how universities and training might be used to “level up” local areas, and to select the three they most support. These were the results:

Looking at the following options for policies to “level up” local areas by improving local universities and training, which would you be MOST supportive of the Government implementing? Please select up to three of the following

Our colleague Ed Dorrell has already picked out what this tells us about support for apprenticeships. But we also want to focus on how far down the priority list the two proposals are that relate specifically to university admissions: lower entry requirements for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and limiting the number of places available to private schools. Only 16 per cent and 11 per cent respectively of the public included these options in their top three.

These figures drop to 9 per cent in both cases when you look specifically at a politically vital demographic of working-class people who voted Conservative in 2019 and to leave the EU in 2016. These are, in effect, the voters the Labour party needs to win back. On the flip side, the figures rise to 14 per cent and 23 per cent respectively when you look specifically at Labour voters in 2019.

Looking at the following options for policies to “level up” local areas by improving local universities and training, which would you be MOST supportive of the Government implementing? Please select up to three of the following

The message is therefore simple: the public – and in particular those who the levelling up agenda must surely hope to impress – strongly back meritocracy when it comes to university admissions. Conversely, existing Labour party voters are in a very different place.

The public wants future students to earn their university place – and be supported financially to access it – rather than be offered a “free pass” or an easier route. There is little public support for policy which gives pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds lower offers, or sets quotas to reduce the number of privately educated pupils. To the public, and even more so the demographic the two main parties will be fighting over at the next election, levelling up means more opportunity for all, not lowering the bar for some.

Investing in potential

The most obvious implication of these findings is a requirement for universities to build new routes into higher education which improve opportunities. Those currently asking questions about how they can respond to the levelling up agenda should look first to apprenticeships and retraining, which will also require universities to engage fully in shaping the lifelong learning agenda.

A second implication relates to Michelle Donelan’s recent demand that the sector does more to help students achieve their potential while they are in school. Our polling demonstrates a strong preference for helping future students do well, instead of lowering requirements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

To be clear, we do not think this means removing any context from the admissions process – taking into consideration a candidate’s background and experience will always be a core part of the university admissions process. But it does mean a move away from offering some students lower grade offers, and instead investing in the tools, resources, time and energy that helps make sure students are not held back from achieving the grades they deserve by their background.

This is hard. It will require money, time and expertise – and universities being forced to think a little bit more about what their purpose is and who they are here to try to help. But the fact is – whether they like it or not – public opinion doesn’t really leave them any other option.

10 responses to “The public favours meritocracy when it comes to levelling up and university admissions

  1. As with Brexit the public may be mislead if we are not able to review the facts dispassionately before making another strategic blunder.

  2. It seems to be quite a leap to say just because contextual admissions are not in the top three favoured approaches it is not supported by the public. Let us remember that the whole concept of a meritocracy means people get on according to their merits. Contextual admissions when adopted seeks to do exactly that. Given the list it might not be in my top three, however that does not mean I am not in favour of it.

  3. Several of the suggestions in the survey are surely the responsibility of the government, the Department for Education and businesses, and not individual universities? Individual universities do not have the power to improve access to funding, reinstate maintenance grants, provide better facilities in FE colleges, significantly improve attainment in schools or offer appealing alternatives to university. And certainly not within their existing structures or expertise. There is an increasing lack of understanding about what is possible.

  4. Some would say that a grade or two discount for a first generation kid in a sink comprehensive, versus the grades asked of the Etonian or Harrovian, IS a lot closer to “meritocracy” than asking each to bring the same grades…

  5. I don’t think this polling does directly suggest universities should move away from making contextual offers, does it? Just that, as an intervention, it doesn’t make many people’s top three solutions to “levelling up”? To me, this polling doesn’t suggest evidence of strong public opposition to contextual offers.

    In any case, I am not sure admissions decisions are based primarily on wider public opinion.

  6. These are interesting survey results, but they’re not surprising. Importantly, though, surveys shouldn’t (and rarely do) dictate policy because, of course, they can suggest contradictory things. For example, people may say they don’t want lower grade requirements for disadvantaged students, but they might also agree that it’s right to favour students who’ve had a tougher journey.

    Survey respondents may hold one view when it relates to a general situation but feel differently if they or someone they know is either the beneficiary or victim of a policy. The fact that may people argue that ‘too many kids go to uni’ while at the same time there’s a nearly universal aspiration for one’s own kids to go to uni is a case in point.

    You can create a policy based on what people say in response to a survey or you can create it based on what they might want for themselves and their families. Both are flawed populist approaches and will ultimately lead to dissatisfaction because the policy’s fairness is skin deep.

    It’s also important to remember that surveys might also suggest a strong view on a subject, but it doesn’t mean there’s a single person who holds that view who’d change their vote because of it. Meanwhile, the minority view may be the one that actually wins or loses votes.

    That’s why I said that surveys rarely do dictate policy. It tends to be the other way around: policies often emerge either from a pre-held ideology or from a story that politicians think will play well in certain sectors (or both). Public opinion follows the argument not the reasoning. (See also: Brexit.)

  7. I don’t see that the results presented support the interpretation given here – or rather other interpretations are available. Respondents weren’t asked “do you agree with this policy or not?”; they were asked to pick their three favourites. There is not clear evidence here that respondents don’t like contextualised admissions or similar, but there is evidence that they want to prioritise opportunities for those not accessing higher education.

    1. Oops, left my comment on an un-refreshed version of the page – apologies to earlier commenters!

  8. At best, we should be very cautious of this interpretation of the data given that the questions simply asked respondents to pick their top three interventions. At worst, we should be very suspicious of what appears to be a deliberate and misleading attempt to stretch the data to reinforce an existing and increasingly dominant policy discourse opposed to contextualised admissions by an organisation that has already been shown to have uncomfortably close links with central government…

  9. Agree with other critical comments here, and I personally disagree that the wording of the question does not really get to the bottom of the purpose of contextual recruitment. Having the wording as:

    “having lower grade requirements for people from less privileged backgrounds to attend university”

    elicits a very different response than for example

    “lowering grade requirements by 1 or 2 grades for people from less privileged backgrounds to attend highly selective universities where they are underrepresented”

    I think the latter wording gets closer to what policymakers want to achieve with the policy of contextual recruitment.

    I also agree with other posters that the causality of this polling to saying that the public does not agree with contextual recruitment is misleading.

    Also helping disadvantaged achieve higher grades is not a mutually exclusive policy from universities offering contextualised recruitment – we should be doing both! Indeed, the former involves time and resources (which should be spent), whereas the latter is simply about the universities taking in more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – there is no trade off here!

    I feel the quality of the this article – as evidenced by the backlash in the comments here – is below par for Wonkhe’s usual output (which on the whole I find very useful).

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