Report Overview

Rules of the Game analyses the university admissions process in the UK and looks at whether it may be a potential driver of the access gap. This is an area that is surprisingly under-researched, given that the pursuit of ‘fair access’ for students into the most selective universities remains high on the policy agenda. Authored by Gill Wyness, the report discusses how the UK’s admissions process is highly centralised, complex, time consuming, and requires young people to make potentially life-changing decisions far in advance of university entry. Many of the elements of this process may put students from poorer backgrounds at a disadvantage.

The report looks in particular at three key elements:

  • The UCAS form
  • The Predicted Grades system
  • Personal Statements
Executive Summary
  • Whilst there have been substantial improvements in university participation among students from disadvantaged backgrounds in recent years, the gap between disadvantaged students and their advantaged peers remains significant, particularly at the most selective universities. UCAS figures show that the most advantaged applicants are six times more likely to enter a high tariff institution compared to the most disadvantaged.
  • High ability disadvantaged students lack the information, advice and guidance needed in the university application process. Lack of knowledge of the many parameters involved in applying to university (including dates and deadlines, the entry requirements of each course, whether the course is a good match, and the probability of admission), leads many disadvantaged students to make sub-optimal decisions when choosing their universities.
  • In addition, students must make their course choices based on predicted rather than actual A-level exam grades. Evidence shows that the majority of grades are over-predicted, which could encourage students to make more aspirational choices. However, high attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts. This could result in them applying to universities which are less selective than their credentials would permit.
  • Almost 3,000 disadvantaged, high-achieving students – or 1,000 per year – have their grades under-predicted. Additionally, low attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to be matched to courses with similar students, while low attaining but advantaged students are far more likely to be overmatched: to attend courses with higher ability peers.
  • Personal statements are a further barrier to entry for poorer students. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be supported in preparing these essays, and as such their statements tend to contain more grammatical and spelling errors. But 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.
  • 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. 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.”
  1. Post Qualification Admissions (PQA) should be trialled and implemented. Measures should be explored to minimise the effects on the current examination and admissions timetable.
  2. Universities and UCAS should review the personal statement, including whether it is beneficial to the application process, and considering if the format could be improved to ensure it is a fair indicator of all applicants’ potential.
  3. 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.
  4. There should be greater transparency from universities when communicating how contextual data is used and how personal statements are evaluated across departments. Information should be shared widely and effectively with applicants, schools and teachers. 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.
  5. All pupils should receive a guaranteed level of careers advice from professional impartial advisers. For those facing disadvantage – or who are at risk of failing to reach their potential – there should be further support available, including being supported to undertake and reflect upon academic enrichment activities for the personal statement. Staff training should ensure that key messages are consistent and based on up to date guidelines. The Careers and Enterprise Company should also be resourced and encouraged to trial and identify what works in careers advice for disadvantaged pupils.