Lowering university offers for disadvantaged pupils by just two grades could lead to a 50% increase in the number of free school meals eligible pupils admitted to top universities. This could potentially benefit up to 750 such pupils each year, as well as many more young people from low and moderate income backgrounds. This is one of the major findings of a new report from the Sutton Trust that examines the extent of contextual admissions at 30 of the most selective universities in the UK.

The research, by a team led by Professor Vikki Boliver of Durham University and Dr Claire Crawford of Warwick University, found little difference in the grades with which students from different backgrounds entered university, with those from neighbourhoods with low university participation rates having A-level grades just a quarter of a grade less than those from higher participation neighbourhoods.

This apparent lack of success in admitting larger numbers of students with lower grades from contextual backgrounds may reflect the lack of consistency and the lack of transparency in how selective universities use contextual data.

While a majority said that they used contextual data to decide which pupils to admit, they used different indicators in different ways, with many universities leaving decisions to the discretion of individual departments.

Just four universities indicated that all contextually eligible applicants would be guaranteed a reduced grade offer, with a further nine guaranteeing a reduced grade offer for those who have completed a widening access programme, such as the Sutton Trust’s summer schools. The report also found a wide distribution of A level results among better-off students, with as many as one in five advantaged students entering these highly selective universities with grades at or below BBC, the level at which the 50% increase in disadvantaged students would be achieved.

Worryingly, a substantial number of universities give little or no information to applicants about how they use contextual data and which factors they look at. This lack of transparency is a barrier to access, as potentially eligible students – often those with fewer networks and least access to information – may be unaware that they could benefit.

While the university access gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers has narrowed in recent years, the gap at the most selective institutions remains stubborn and wide. To widen access to students from less privileged backgrounds, the Trust is calling on universities – and selective universities in particular – to make greater use of contextual admissions, including making lower grade offers.

Importantly, the report finds little evidence that universities that are more likely to contextualise admissions see significantly higher dropout rates, lower degree completion rates, or lower degree class results amongst their students. This suggests there is no reason to believe that contextualisation should lead to lower standards.

The report recommends that:

  • Universities should make greater use of individual-level indicators, like whether a young person has been eligible for free school meals, to contextualise admissions, as these better capture the personal circumstances of applicants.
  • There should be greater transparency from universities when communicating how they’re using contextual data.
  • Students who have been admitted with lower grades should receive support they need to successfully complete their degree courses, in recognition of the additional difficulties they may face. Greater use should be made of foundation years – to support learning for disadvantaged students through an extra ‘Year 0’ – as they can help to bridge wider attainment gaps for those admitted from contextual backgrounds.

The Trust is also reviewing the indicators it uses to prioritise applicants for its highly popular summer schools at 12 leading universities. 10,000 students applied for 2,000 places at Sutton Trust summer schools in 2017.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation said today:

“Getting a degree from a top university is one of the surest routes to a good job.  However young people from low and moderate income homes are substantially under-represented at these universities.  We need a radical change to shift this.  A central element when applying to leading universities must be to use contextual admissions.  By contextual admissions we mean that the social background of a university applicant is taken into account in the admissions process.

“At top American universities like Harvard and Yale giving low and moderate income students a break is the norm.  There is no reason why our leading universities should not do the same.”

Dr Claire Crawford, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, said:

‘Despite a substantial increase in the numbers of universities that report taking account of students’ backgrounds when making application decisions, it is amazing how little difference there is between the average grades of young people from rich and poor backgrounds who are admitted to selective universities. While the relatively small numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who secure the highest A-level grades remains the biggest barrier to widening access to elite institutions, our analysis shows that more widespread and transparent use of contextual data could make a significant difference.’

For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact:  Hilary Cornwell or Conor Ryan on 0207 802 1660.


  1. Admissions in Context will be available from this link at 0001 on Thursday.
  2. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  3. Vikki Boliver is Professor of Sociology in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University. Claire Crawford is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, and Fellow of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Mandy Powell is Research Associate at Durham University. Will Craige is Assistant Professor at Durham University.
  4. Information on admissions processes was collected from all Sutton Trust 30 universities during March and April 2017, including undergraduate admissions webpages, Access Agreements and Outcome Agreements. Data analysis was performed on admissions to the 25 English ST30 universities between 2004/05 and 2012/13 using HESA data linked to the National Pupil Database. The Sutton Trust 30 are a group of universities identified by the Trust as the most highly selective, comprising mostly Russell Group universities, plus other similar institutions.
  5. After meeting basic criteria, applicants on Sutton Trust summer schools are prioritised according to different social mobility measures. These include, free school meal eligibility, being the first in their family to go to university and living in a neighbourhood with a low rate of progression to higher education. More on this here.
  6. While 16% of young people in England eligible for free school meals now attend university, just 2.5% attend the most selective universities, four times lower than the rate for non-FSM (10%). Using UCAS’s Multiple Equality Measure, the gap between the most disadvantaged and the least disadvantaged attending highly selective institutions is even wider; around 22%, the same as a decade ago (2% compared to 24.5%).

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Sam or Rocky on the number below. The number is also monitored out of hours.

E: [email protected] T: 0204 536 4642

Keep up to date with the latest news