Gill Wyness discusses the potential barriers for disadvantaged students created by the university admissions process

Whilst there have been substantial improvements in university participation among students from disadvantaged backgrounds in recent years, the university access gap continues to haunt those in power. High debts and tuition are often cited as barriers to access, and recent policy moves have focused on these areas. Yet few policymakers have considered the role of the university admissions process itself as a barrier to access.

The UKs university admissions process is highly complex, time consuming, and requires young people to make potentially life-changing decisions far in advance of university entry. In a recent report for the Sutton trust, I find that many of the elements of this process may put students from poorer backgrounds at a disadvantage.

First, students have to choose five courses to apply to. There is much evidence that shows students find this element of the process a struggle. In their major review of the admissions process in 2012, UCAS highlighted that huge numbers of applications were withdrawn or cancelled before the college decision had been made, and their helpline regularly fields thousands of calls about changing choices or swapping decisions. About half of applicants reported having made choices that they weren’t particularly interested in and many had not undertaken any visits to HEIs prior to submitting their application. Understanding how students make their choices is a very under-researched area in the UK. However, research from the US shows that disadvantaged students are less likely to know which universities are a good match for their attainment, and indeed, many apply to universities that are less selective than they could do based on their attainment levels. My own research on UK students – based on where they end up rather than their applications behaviour – shows a similar pattern.

Why might disadvantaged students make sub optimal course choices? Again this is a badly researched area in the UK, though many studies have shown that disadvantaged students lack the information which would help them to choose optimally. For example, in previous research myself and colleagues showed that disadvantaged students were much less likely to know that those who attend more selective universities and courses tend to end up with higher wage returns and employment prospects, instead believing that their prospects would be the same regardless of which university they attended, or which subject they chose.

A further feature of the UK system which may lead students down the wrong path concerns our predicted grades system, where students must apply to their courses based on their predicted rather than actual grades. Research has shown that disadvantaged students tend to have their grades over-predicted, which could result in them making more aspirational choices. However, it could equally lead them to waste applications on courses they wont be able to access when their results come through. Moreover, my own research has shown that high attaining disadvantaged students are actually more likely to have their grades under-predicted, which could result in them choosing less selective universities than they could have.

A final element of the application process is the personal statement. This is a 4,000 free text essay that gives students the chance to impress with details of interests and extra-curricular activities. Research in this area is, again, sparse, but has shown that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be supported in preparing these essays, and that their statements tend to contain more grammatical and spelling errors. Perhaps more seriously, those from deprived backgrounds are also able to provide fewer examples of the types of work and life experiences that many colleges and universities value, and use to decide between applicants.

Simply providing disadvantaged students with better information – to help them choose their universities and write their personal statements, is unlikely to bear much fruit. Studies have shown that information is much more effective if it is timely, targeted and customised to the student. Since all students’ grades and preferences vary, information needs to be customised appropriately. This could include, for example, providing students with a set of universities that are “reach”, “safety” and “match” to their likely A-level grades at, or before the application stage. This type of approach has been shown to be successful in the US, and could work here too.

But, at the heart of these issues is an underlying lack of transparency in the admissions process as a whole. Universities are fluid in their approach to admissions, and put different weight on the predicted and achieved grades of students. As recent Sutton Trust research has shown, they have different approaches to the use of contextual admissions and apply different criteria when analysing personal statements. This leads to an admissions process that lacks transparency and consistency, and means that less savvy students are less likely to understand “the rules of the game.” A more transparent and consistent system is the only real way to level this playing field.

You can read the full report here.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07834 461299.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news