Binda Patel, Head of Programmes at the Sutton Trust, looks at what universities are doing to widen access.

Last week FOI requests by Labour MP David Lammy highlighted the lack of diversity at Oxford and Cambridge: from 2010 to 2015, four-fifths of Oxbridge students had parents with professional and managerial jobs and a disproportionate number of them hailed from the Home Counties. Whilst it is easy for some to begin the Oxbridge bashing, the situation is rather more complex.

I work with many university outreach and widening participation teams in my role at the Sutton Trust. All of the individuals I work with want to diversify their undergraduate population and understand the broader societal benefits of doing so. Despite their excellent outreach work and the £800m per year spent on widening participation initiatives, there are still bleak admissions statistics for those who come from low to middle income homes. We need to ask why.

It is easy to focus on universities as the sole problem here. However, we need to take a more holistic approach in our thinking. There is a need for broader change and shifts in how we approach the challenge. For example, how do we better-support our teachers and schools to raise attainment levels of young people to create a larger pool of young people who have the academic potential to thrive at universities? Should employers adopt contextual recruitment to break down barriers in accessing employment? Could tariff points be replaced by a social mobility score? These are just a few ideas on a very long list.

In today’s report, Admissions in Context, Professor Vikki Boliver and Dr Claire Crawford argue that there is a greater need to link the work of university outreach teams with decisions made by admissions teams. They believe this can be achieved through greater consideration of a student’s background when making university offers, otherwise known as contextual admissions.

The report finds that lowering university offers for disadvantaged students by just two grades could benefit up to 750 young people each year. This would lead to a 50% increase in the number of pupils previously eligible for free school meals admitted to top universities. There is also very little evidence that universities adopting the practice of contextual recruitment have seen high dropout rates, lower degree completion rates or lower degree classifications, suggesting there is no reason why universities should shy away from contextual recruitment.

We have seen the positive outcomes for students when universities forge strong links between outreach and admissions. For example, the Sutton Trust partners with the University of Durham to run our flagship UK Summer School programme. In 2017, they introduced an assessment which sees complete a first-year equivalent assignment and submit it after the one-week intervention. If they pass the assessment, students receive a contextual offer, two grades lower than the standard offer. Of the 285 attendees, 95% completed the assessment and 92% passed and will now be eligible for the reduced offer. The University of Bristol also guarantees contextual offers or interviews to their Summer School attendees. These are excellent examples of how universities are supporting those who have overcome significant barriers, believing in their potential and opening doors.

We need more universities working like this if we want to see greater change. Universities are just one piece in a complex puzzle but they are definitely a good starting point.

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