How we can help contextual admissions to deliver

The problem of unequal access to university is one of the most high profile issues in British education. However, the media focus is frequently on the problem, and less on concrete solutions.

It is well established that applicants to university do not arrive at the point of application on an equal footing. Many have faced substantial barriers and obstacles relating to their social background throughout their life, from their home background, to the school they attend, to the neighbourhood they grow up in. There are many ways in which these circumstances can affect the chances of going to university, but one of the most significant is through their impact on achievement at school.

The United Kingdom’s university admissions process is built on the school examination system. But school achievement is inevitably shaped by obstacles faced both inside and outside the school gates. This means that the true potential of a young person is frequently not reflected in their A level results. We know that the university you attend impacts on your future earning potential, and so university admissions are a key lever for increasing social mobility. While universities cannot be expected to compensate for the effects of 18 years of inequality, they can however adjust their admissions processes to take into account the context in which A level results are achieved. This process is referred to as contextual (or contextualised) admissions.

The Trust has identified three particular issues that are preventing contextual admissions from delivering on its promise of fairer university access: transparency and consistency in offers, the quality of contextual indicators, and greater ambition in grade reductions.

Transparency and consistency in offers

Transparency and consistency is key, because if young people aren’t made fully aware of where and how they may benefit from a contextual offer, they may never apply, thinking a course or university is out of their reach. Universities in Scotland have made significant progress on the transparency front, with many offering contextual lookup tools which allow the applicant to check whether they would be entitled to a contextual offer, and what level that offer may be. In England, University College London’s Access UCL scheme is a recent example of more consistent and transparent communication of contextualisation to young people. Transparency is also important for making sure the process is clear and fair for all applicants.

Quality of contextual indicators

Improving the quality of indicators and flags used in contextualisation is also important. Research conducted for the Trust has shown that many indicators used by universities to flag widening participation candidates are based on the school or locality of a candidate. While these provide important context, they can often be misleading as to the individual circumstances of the applicant. There should be greater use of individual-level measures in contextualisation, such as eligibility for Free School Meals. The Department for Education, who holds this data, should look at providing this in a secure way, with the applicant’s consent, directly to universities through the UCAS application platform.

Our research also showed that universities are using participation in outreach programmes in different ways for contextual offers. While some universities use participation in any outreach programme as a qualifying indicator for a contextual offer, many only accept participation in their own programme, and some don’t take it into account at all. While there is a question of assuring quality of provision across institutions, there are already great examples across the sector of where universities collaborate on contextual offers for outreach participants, including the Sutton Trust’s Pathways to Law programme and Realising Opportunities. At the Trust, we are working with our partner universities to explore more consistent contextual offers being made across the consortium.

Greater ambition in grade reductions

The Trust’s research also revealed slow progress in the ambition and extent of contextual offers. While many of those concerned with widening participation agree that greater use of contextual admissions is the way forward, there remain structural barriers to progress. One of those is the university league table industry. All the main university rankings include the A level results of students on entry. This is both counter-intuitive and results in profoundly negative incentives to universities. School league tables in recent years have made a deliberate move to focus on the progress made during a pupil’s time in a school, and not merely reward schools for taking in high attaining kids in the first place. The potential negative impact on a university’s ranking of admitting some students on lower grades acts as a strong brake on more ambitious contextual admissions. Use of A Level results of students before they have even entered university is a deeply flawed measure of quality, and this needs to change. Unlike school league tables, university rankings are produced by private organisations, rather than government, but this does not make them any less in need of reform.

The Office for Students’ commitment to contextual admissions and ambitious targets are welcome. But as we see strides being made in the corporate sector with organisations such as Hogan Lovells and Linklaters investing in contextual recruitment, it is time to take stock and make sure we are using contextual admissions to meaningfully move the dial on fair access to our country’s leading institutions.