Report Overview

Widening access to the UK’s most selective universities is an important means of increasing social mobility. One way of achieving this may be to make greater use of ‘contextualised’ admissions, to take account of the socio-economic background of potential candidates when considering their applications.

Authored by Vikki Boliver, Claire Crawford, Mandy Powell and Will Craige, this report provides new evidence on the use of contextualised admissions amongst a group of highly selective universities in the UK today, and offers some insights into the difference that greater use of contextual data might make to the numbers of disadvantaged students at these universities.

Survey data suggests that the majority of UK universities are now using contextual data in some way to inform undergraduate admissions decisions, however little is known about how the UK’s most selective institutions are currently contextualising, and how. While the university access gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers has narrowed somewhat in recent years, the gap at the most selective universities remains stubbornly wide.

Key Findings
  • While the university access gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers has narrowed somewhat in recent years, the gap at the most selective universities remains stubbornly wide. Contextualised admissions – taking into account a candidate’s background when making decisions on whom to admit – is one way through which universities may be able to make greater progress towards narrowing these gaps.
  • Analysis of information made available via university websites during the 2016-17 academic year by a group of the UK’s most selective universities, the Sutton Trust (ST) 30, indicates that a majority of these universities use contextual data to inform their admissions processes. Four types of contextual indicators are commonly used: individual-level, area-level, school-level, and participation in outreach programmes. Individual indicators, such as having been in receipt of free school meals, are the least commonly used, with participation in widening access programmes the most common.
  • A substantial number provided no information to applicants about how indicators would be used, with some others indicating only that such applications would be given additional consideration, without further details. 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 may benefit from contextual admissions processes.
  • Analysis of administrative data on students attending ST30 universities finds little evidence that those from contextual backgrounds are being admitted to these universities in large numbers or with average grades substantially lower than their peers from non-contextual backgrounds. There is a wide distribution of grades among those from better-off backgrounds – with as many as one in five students from higher participation neighbourhoods being admitted with A-level grades of BBC or below, for example – and that the average grades of those from contextual backgrounds are only marginally lower than those from non-contextual backgrounds.
  • Using estimates of the standard offers made to those from more advantaged backgrounds on each course, in six of the 25 ST30 universities in England students from low participation neighbourhoods have lower average A-level results than the standard offer, suggesting the use of contextualisation. However, these differences are small – less than half an A-level grade on average.
  • There is little evidence to suggest that leading universities that practice greater contextualisation see significantly higher dropout rates, lower degree completion rates, or lower degree class results, suggesting that there is no reason why students admitted via contextualised admissions processes cannot succeed at top universities.
  • Greater use of contextual admissions could result in a substantial increase in the numbers of low income students at the UK’s most selective universities. 85% of students at these universities are admitted onto courses with a requirement of ABB or above. If this were to be lowered by two grades, to BBC, then, each year, about 750 students previously eligible for free school meals with grades of BBB or BBC who do not currently attend a ST30 institution could potentially go, an increase of 50% on current numbers.
  1. Universities should use contextual data in their admissions process to open up access to students from less privileged backgrounds. Highly selective universities in particular, where low and middle-income students are substantially under-represented, should make greater use of contextual admissions, including reduced grade offers, to widen access.
  2. There should be a greater use of individual-level contextual indicators, such as previous eligibility for free school meals, as well as school-level and area-level criteria. Individual criteria are not widely used for general applicants, yet better capture the personal circumstances of applicants. The UCAS application service can provide this information to universities.
  3. Universities practicing contextualisation should provide additional support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those who have been admitted with lower grades, in recognition of the additional difficulties such students may face.
  4. There should be greater transparency from universities when communicating how contextual data is used. If they are to take advantage of access measures, it is crucial that applicants are aware if and how they may benefit from contextualisation. Universities should publicise the criteria for contextual admissions clearly on their websites, along with how and when they are taken into account. There should also be greater clarity and consistency in the reporting of contextual admissions processes in access agreements with the Director of Fair Access, including reporting levels of contextually admitted applicants.
  5. Foundation year provision should be increased, with greater targeting of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Foundation years – or differentiated first years as in some Scottish four-year courses – can help to widen access, and supported learning in a ‘Year 0’ can help to bridge a wider attainment gap for those admitted contextually.
  6. Participation in outreach programmes should be shared as a contextual indicator across universities. Outreach programmes tend to be targeted at areas or schools local to the region in which the university is located, but participation is typically only used as contextual information by the university running the programme. Universities, potentially facilitated by UCAS, should share this data across institutions so participation in another university’s outreach programme can be taken into account.
  7. Many outreach programmes include academic eligibility criteria set at a high threshold. However, this is likely to exclude disadvantaged pupils with the potential to do well at university, but whose GCSE results are not exceptional. Universities, and those who run similar outreach programmes, should consider more inclusive thresholds to reduce barriers to participation and increase access.