Contextual admissions

Contextual admissions is information and data used by providers to assess an applicant’s prior attainment and potential, in the context of their individual circumstances.

The Office for Students’ Director of Fair Access and Participation, has stated that

‘A level grades can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved’.
  • Contextual data refers to data about an applicant’s educational and socio-economic background, such as their school or the area they live in.
  • Contextual information refers to their circumstances, for example if they have been in care or if they have participated in outreach activities.

Many providers use this information and data as part of their admissions processes to help identify and encourage students with potential from underrepresented groups.

Some use it to make applicants lower offers than they would normally.

We encourage providers to consider the use of contextual data and information, so long as they follow procedures which are fair, transparent and evidence-based.

Examples

Several providers use contextual information and data during admissions processes for foundation year courses, which serve as an alternative route into undergraduate programmes.

Foundation year programmes may include admissions policies with reductions of several grades or no formal entry requirements. (See the Sutton Trust's report Admissions in Context.)

In 2018, the Medical Schools Council Selection Alliance published guidance on good practice in contextual admissions.

It highlighted that students from lower-socio economic backgrounds are underrepresented on medicine courses.

The Selection Alliance encourages individual medical schools

  • to identify groups of students that are underrepresented by looking at student demographics
  • to consider what support they will provide to support the success and progression of students from all backgrounds.

As well as the standard information they collect, UCAS also gives applicants the opportunity to declare additional, contextual information — such as an impairment, or experience of the care system.

This means an applicant’s personal statement or reference is another good source of contextual information.

UCAS offers two contextual data services for providers:

  • UCAS' contextual data service– offering data and background information about an applicant’s school or college, and local area data in the form of POLAR3, and the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) (available to providers only).
  • Modernised contextualised data service– providing applicant level data and insight into their individual circumstances. It includes an applicant’s Multiple Equality Measure (MEM) group (1 – 5), grade profile (containing both predicted and achieved grades), grade profiles adjusted for an individual applicant’s equality context, and POLAR4 quintile (available to providers only).

Why use it

Higher education providers have been using contextual data and information for fair access, and to maintain academic excellence, for many years.

The evidence to support this practice is strong and has grown over the years. The Schwartz Report on Fair Admissions to Higher Education in 2004 gave it more impetus.

More recently, policy initiatives from UK governments, such as the Social Mobility Advisory Report, have supported greater use of contextual data and information.

Research by the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, commissioned by the Fair Education Alliance, found that evidence supports the use of contextual data and information.

But the same report suggested that applicants and advisers were not well-informed about the use of contextual data.

How to use it

Providers should help applicants understand if and how they are using contextual data and information.

They might consider communications activities to make sure applicants are aware of the provider’s strategy. Or they could make contextual data accessible and searchable online.

Different providers take different approaches to the use of contextual data and information.

These may include using multiple data sources, triangulation of data, examining the intersectionality of several characteristics or estimating an applicant’s relative position to peers, for example their school peer group.

Providers need to outline their approach as part of their contextualised admissions policy.

Contextual admissions may also be used to target mature students and may be helpful to overcome language barriers if targeting refugees as part of your strategy.

If providers choose to use contextual data and information in relation to improving access, and/or supporting success and progression, they can include the extra costs in their access and participation plan.

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