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.