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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.