14 January 2021

Bolder approach needed to make university admissions fairer

Universities should be bolder in their use of contextual data to inform admissions decisions, according to a new report by CGHE’s Vikki Boliver into making access to Higher Education fairer for disadvantaged students.

The report from education experts at Durham University is based on in-depth interviews with admissions heads and selectors at 17 pre and post-1992 English universities conducted in 2017/18, and a review of 25 Access and Participation Plans belonging to universities with high academic entry requirements which look ahead to the period 2020/21 to 2024/25.

The report is published online by Durham University and will be presented at a webinar hosted by CGHE on Thursday 14 January.

The researchers found that highly selective universities in England are increasingly taking into account the socioeconomic and educational contexts in which applicants’ achieved their grades when making admissions decisions.

However the report, called Fair Admission to Universities in England: Improving Policy and Practice, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, says that universities need to go further to create a level playing field by:

  • Reducing entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants by more than just one or two grades;
  • Contextualising all admissions criteria including GCSE grades, personal statements and interview performances;
  • Ensuring that new commitments to supporting contextually disadvantaged students to achieve their potential at university are fulfilled.

Overall the report recommends switching from the traditional admissions model, where places go to the highest qualified candidates irrespective of social background, to a model, where prospective students’ qualifications are judged in light of their socioeconomic circumstances.

Professor Vikki Boliver, of the Department of Sociology, Durham University, said: “Universities have taken some tentative steps in a positive direction when it comes to widening access to Higher Education for students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

“This is encouraging, but by being bolder we believe that they can further improve the chances of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Traditionally universities have seen high qualifications as a marker of esteem and have chosen students who are able to handle their courses with relatively minimal support.

“What our report is saying is that if you really want to widen participation and correct for previous inequities then universities need to step up and say grades aren’t necessarily an accurate indicator of how smart someone is or whether they will do well.

“Instead universities need to look at all of the admissions information available in context, as well as offering increased support to students when they are at university to help them achieve the qualifications they are capable of.”

Recommendations to universities include:

  • Aim to become progressively bolder in the use of contextual data relating to the socio-economic circumstances of applicants when making admissions decisions;
  • Commit to the contextualised assessment of all selection criteria, used formally or informally, in making admissions decisions including GCSE grades, entrance test scores, personal statements, references, portfolios of work and performances at interview;
  • Better academic support and newly inclusive approaches to teaching and learning should continue to be developed to benefit all students, but especially those from disadvantaged or under-represented groups to help them achieve their full potential when they are at university;
  • Increase communication to prospective students and the wider public about the ethical case and evidence behind universities’ commitment to contextualised admissions policies and to inclusive teaching and learning.

In addition the report also recommends that national policy makers should:

  • Enable a shift to post-qualifications admissions (PQA) so that admissions decisions are based on the contextualised consideration of achieved rather than predicted grades;
  • Replace the area-based widening access metric POLAR with individual-level measures of socio-economic disadvantage and make this information available to universities so that it can be used to inform individual admissions decisions;
  • Make it a requirement for universities to record and report on the number of applications they receive from prospective students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and on admissions decisions made about these applications;
  • Continue to facilitate the development and dissemination of the growing evidence base supporting good practice in the use of contextual data to inform admissions decisions and in the use of academic support systems and inclusive teaching.

You can read the report here.