Laura Bruce, our Director of Programmes and Partnerships, explains what the contextual admissions process is, why it’s important, and how we’re working with UCAS to improve it.

Contextual admissions, the process whereby universities consider the context in which an applicant achieves their A-levels, has been a policy priority for The Sutton Trust for several years now.  

In October 2017, we released our Admissions in Context researchwhich looked at the recruitment practices of highly selective universities across the UK. From this research we defined three areas of focus for the Sutton Trust to improve contextual admissions: transparency and consistency of offers, increasing the quality of the indicators used to make them and promoting greater ambition in grade reductions. 

This year, we are looking at practical ways to improve the transparency of contextual offers available to students. We are concerned that if a young person from a less advantaged background does not know they are eligible for a contextual offer, or what that offer might look like for them, they may be put off from even making an application in the first place.  

Our research showed that whilst many universities had some form of contextual admissions policy, it was not always clear what this policy meant in practice. In many cases the offer (e.g. ABB) which a student could expect to receive as a result of the policy was not always clear. We know from our programmes work that many universities have great information available for students on existing outreach programmes but finding standardised information online was tricky. 

We would like to see all universities providing students with clear, easily accessible information on contextual admissions. This should ideally include whether contextual admissions are a part of a university’s admissions process, and if so, what that means at each institution (for example, whether lower grades are available, or if a student is given additional consideration or a guaranteed interview). We would also like to see institutions making clear to students the major criteria they use when deciding if someone is eligible for a contextual offer, and ensuring students know if they need to do anything additional to access that offer (for instance, if they need to include additional information about their background in their personal statement). 

Working alongside UCAS, we have been looking at one of the ways we can highlight that contextual offers exist in a more accessible way. As a part of this work, last week we wrote this letter to all our university partners to highlight two opportunities to make contextual admissions information more consistent and transparent. As well as our own university partners, we are keen to promote these practical steps across the sector so that applicants can access clearer information for every institution and course in one central space. 

The two opportunities are: 

  • Using the UCAS free text box to give information on contextual offers

Universities can now provide information on their contextual offers as part of the UCAS Collection Return by using the UCAS free text boxThis information is displayed alongside the main course requirements for each university and course when a student looks at the UCAS pages. This will ensure that students are better aware that a university gives contextual offers and where to find the relevant information.  

  • Considering implementing minimum entry requirements 

We are keen to explore how recent changes in Scotland could be replicated across the rest of the UK. In Scotland, institutions now publish ‘Minimum Entry Requirements’ on UCAS, to set out their standard offer for widening participation students in a clear and accessible way. This will help to address the issue of students not knowing what a contextual offer might look like for them. We hope the sector in the rest of the UK will start to think about implementing a similar system, which UCAS are happy to facilitate.  

We know that many universities share the aim to make this information more accessible and are making great strides to improve their contextual admissions policies and practices across their institutions. We hope that some of these practical steps make it easier for institutions to translate their policies into practice. 

In addition to the consistency and transparency work outlined above, there are several other activities we are undertaking over the next year to improve and promote contextual admissions.  We are working with our university partners to collect data on their contextual admissions policies, so that we can display them to our students in a clear way before they apply to our programmes. We are also promoting the use of and access to individual markers such as Free School Meals in the admissions process, as well as encouraging universities to make more ambitious grade reductions in the offers they make to students.  

As we all continue to work to shift the dial on contextual admissions, we look forward to playing our part by sharing the progress of our work in all these areas and to supporting our university partners and the wider sector in their own progress 

Notes: if you would like to find out more about UCAS’ free entry text box please contact UCAS’ data collection team, who can be reached by email ([email protected]) or by phone (01242 544 864). 

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