Topic briefing

Contextual admissions

Published 27 July 2020

The issue

Contextual admissions is the practice of using additional information, such as where a potential student lives or which school they go to, to assess their attainment and potential.

This allows providers to identify applicants with the greatest potential to succeed in higher education, rather than relying on exam results alone.

Many providers are using contextual admissions to help identify and encourage students from underrepresented groups, allowing them to take account of the circumstances in which a student’s grades have been achieved which may lead to them adjusting their standard offer.

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’.

At our Insight event in May 2019, a panel explored whether current approaches to contextual admissions are effective. Watch the discussion below:

Key facts

  1. Admitting students with lower A-level grades does not necessarily diminish their degree outcomes. Research has shown that students can be admitted to high-tariff universities with A-level grades of BCC and have an 80 per cent probability of graduating with a degree, and a 46 per cent chance of gaining a first or upper second degree.
  2. A lack of individualised data can restrict a provider’s ability to make informed decisions about student potential at the point of admission.
  3. Providers may be hindered from being more ambitious in their approach to contextual admissions due to the link between tariff entry points and higher education league tables.
  4. Of the 201 2020-21 access and participation plans approved by the OfS by the end of November 2019, 55 providers made reference to using contextual admissions. POLAR was the most commonly used contextual measure. Different providers are taking different approaches to the use of contextual data and information.
  5. Research by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggests that most students believe that someone’s background matters and that it should be taken into account in admission to higher education.
  6. Awareness of contextual offers is fairly low amongst students - 65 per cent of students interviewed by HEPI did not know if their university makes contextual offers.


Contextual data: Statistical data or individual characteristics that can be used as a basis for placing an applicant’s achievements in context.
Contextual flag: A marker that ‘flags’ to an admissions officer that a student is from an underrepresented group.
Contextual offers: An offer made on the basis of contextual data or participation in an outreach event. This might include:
  • an offer based on advertised grades
  • an offer at a grade or more lower than advertised
  • an unconditional offer
  • an offer linked to a foundation year.
Minimum threshold: An offer which reflects the minimum academic level needed to complete a university course, rather than being increased to take account of, for instance, oversubscription or marketing. This is common practice for providers in Scotland.
Published 27 July 2020

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