Insight brief

Contextual admissions: Promoting fairness and rethinking merit

The Office for Students is challenging universities and colleges to be ambitious and innovative in reducing persistent inequalities in access and participation. Contextual admissions are one way of doing this, but a more radical approach is needed if we are to achieve fair access. What might ‘ambitious and innovative’ look like in this area and how far do we need to go to achieve fair access?

1 May 2019

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This Insight brief is concerned with students’ access to higher education, which can be affected by a range of circumstances. Contextual admissions are used by universities and colleges, including many of the most selective, to take account of these. This allows admissions teams to identify applicants with the greatest potential to succeed in higher education, rather than relying on the highest-ranked exam results alone.

As one admissions officer put it, ‘No university that claims to be serious about widening participation can ignore contextualised admissions’. The debate is now about how contextual admissions can be developed to make more radical progress towards narrowing the gaps between the most and least represented groups in higher education. In parts of the sector, good progress has been made in recruiting disadvantaged students. Overall, however, analysis shows that contextual admissions have not yet had a significant impact on fair access to higher education. At present, for example, the most educationally advantaged students are 5.7 times more likely to attend a higher-tariff provider than the most disadvantaged.

The Office for Students (OfS) is committed to helping universities and colleges eliminate these gaps in the next 20 years, with the expectation of significant improvement over the next five years. We are reforming our regulation of access and participation to provide the time and flexibility universities need to make a major change in progress. We have also published a set of key performance measures for gauging progress, including one which reflects our aim to reduce the gap at higher-tariff providers between the most and least disadvantaged groups. We want to see ambition and innovation from providers, with demonstrable impact by 2024-25.

Universities and colleges are responsible for their own admissions criteria and processes, but students and the public need to be able to have confidence in the fairness, integrity and transparency of admissions systems. The OfS has an important role in assuring this.

This Insight brief considers how contextual admissions, and more diverse entry routes, could be deployed to achieve fair access, drawing on practice in English universities and colleges, and looking at what we might learn from other countries’ higher education systems. It examines current examples of contextual offers and other routes into higher education such as foundation years.

Key points

  • University admissions will need to change radically to achieve fair access. While there has been some progress as a result of the increased use of contextual offers, gaps in equality of access between the most and least advantaged groups remain wide.
  • Universities will therefore need to rethink how they are judging merit, rather than focusing narrowly on A-level success. A more radical use of contextual admissions is one way to achieve this conceptual shift.
  • Through reforming access and participation plans the OfS will instigate more honest self-assessment, more ambitious targets, more evidence-based measures and better evaluation.
  • We will work with the government, UCAS and the Student Loans Company to ensure that universities have access to the most robust data.

Ratio between entry rates by provider type and multiple equality measure (MEM) group

Mem5: MEM 1 by insitution type title

The University of Bristol has made contextual offers since 2009. Accepted students are automatically offered a lower grade if they attend a state school in the bottom 40 per cent for attainment, live in POLAR3 quintiles 1 or 2, have completed a University of Bristol outreach event, or have spent time in care. In 2016, the university admitted 1,000 students on such offers.

Although the students are not offered any additional targeted support once admitted, research has shown that students admitted to Bristol with one grade lower than the entry requirements do just as well as, if not better than, those admitted on the standard offer.

A recent initiative, the Bristol Scholars programme, targets local students with the potential to succeed at university. Of the 43 students on the pilot year, 40 per cent had received free school meals. Students on the programme receive offers of up to four grades lower than the standard offer, and are given support before and after application.

From 2019, York St John University will examine applications holistically, using a variety of contextual data which is clearly set out on the university’s website. On this basis, admissions officers will make a standard conditional, an unconditional, or a reduced points offer. This contextual offer is the most radical published by an English university: a reduction of up to 40 UCAS tariff points (equivalent to five grades at A-level or entry grades of CDD). No conditions are attached to the reduced offers; for instance, applicants do not have to make York St John their firm choice.

Since 2016, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, has extended lower entry offers (alongside an essay and interview test) for a foundation year designed to prepare disadvantaged students for university. Although there is no guarantee of a place at Oxford at the end of the course, the admission rate compares favourably with other foundation years, and a preliminary report suggests that students are more confident and comfortable when entering their first year.

King’s College London’s ‘extended medical programme’ offers students greater support and spreads the first year of the standard medical degree over two years. A review of the programme concluded that, with additional support, students admitted with A-level grades of CCC could thrive on medical degrees. This medical course and others like it recognise the wider need for courses and curricula to evolve to accommodate the needs of contextually admitted students.

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