Over the last few months we have seen universities attacked in the media for using ‘contextual data’ in their admissions processes.
Their consideration of an applicant’s school, where they live and their family’s socio-economic background, alongside their academic achievements, is seen as social engineering, and universities dumbing down as a result.
In fact only this morning, the Daily Telegraph reported the 1994 Group’s call for universities to be unashamedly ‘elitist’ and resist attempts to systematically lower entry grades for poor students.
It is worth noting that most accusations of universities’ social engineering focus on lower grade offers, just one tool at their disposal. Universities have so much more in their contextual data toolboxes than this.
Universities are autonomous organisations, so each individual university decides what contextual data it considers. If a university doesn’t want to consider a particular element, it doesn’t have to. In fact, recent research by Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (Spa) indicates that there has been a negligible increase in the use of contextual data for making lower offers and many institutions have no plans to increase their use of it.
So are universities simply discriminating against better-qualified students or are they aiming to help make a more socially mobile society? What does the evidence show us?
To start with, most of us would agree that access to higher education matters.
It matters to many people because it can radically change an individual’s life trajectory. It matters to government because as a country we rely on innovation and highly skilled people to remain globally competitive. Universities are the engines that generate those ideas and people. A recent report from UCU and IPPR backs this up.
Universities work on the principle that they give ‘equal opportunity for all individuals, regardless of background, to gain admission to a course suited to their ability and aspirations.’
Yet, still we hear arguments about admissions that go like this: ‘if you have the ability to go to university, you’ll get the grades you need, and that’s that. If you don’t get the grades, you’re not good enough to get a place.’ It may sound counterintuitive, but universities know from long experience that this attitude does not help recruit the best.
Student recruitment would be relatively straightforward if we had a level playing field, with all young people, wherever they lived, whatever their parental background, and the type of school they attended, having an equal chance of attaining the highest grades of which they were capable and progressing on to university. Unfortunately this is not always the case.
When we look at the profile of the types of students today who enter university, you can see why.
Where you live is relevant.
Research carried out by Mark Corver in 2010 found that a young person from a disadvantaged area has a one-in-five chance of progressing to university compared to a one-in-two chance for those from the most advantaged neighbourhoods.
Your background is relevant.
The rate of participation in higher education for young people in the lower socio-economic groups (NS-SEC 4-7) is around half that of the higher groups (NS-SEC 1-3).
And delving further into the research we find that socio-economic differences in university progression are underpinned by educational inequalities, and it is this which is critical.
Professor Anna Vignoles demonstrated that at the point of entry to higher education, children from lower socio-economic groups backgrounds were principally disadvantaged by lower educational attainment. However, once a pupil had obtained two A-levels or more, then whatever their background or class, they were likely to go on to university.
Yet analysis of the proportions of students who achieve top marks in A-level examinations shows that these differ by school or college type. For example, the latest results for England suggest that while over a quarter of independent school pupils achieved B grades or higher in any subject, fewer than half of those from maintained school and further education sector colleges did so.
However, it is also well documented that students from less selective educational backgrounds can be shown to perform at least as well at university, and some perform better.
A study of outcomes at the University of Oxford by Anna Zimdars found that students from independent schools did less well at the university than state-school pupils, after controlling for prior attainment.
Then there is the ground breaking work from Dr Tony Hoare at the University of Bristol, who takes this work a step further. He provides evidence showing that outcomes of the ‘schooling effect’ could justify a university in giving an offer which would be below the ‘typical’ entry requirement for a particular course. Using data from three years of entry he found that students from lower-performing schools do better than those from high-performing ones in final year results. They do so by a margin that would justify admitting them with between one to two grades lower for typical AAA offers and three grades lower for ABB offers.
What all this research tells us, is that ‘intelligence’ alone is not the only causal factor behind different levels of achievement. What a person achieves at school or college is likely to be influenced by a range of factors such as their background, where they live and the school attended. In other words, if a university is to maintain excellence by recruiting the best applicants it cannot simply rely on A-level results or their equivalents as shorthand for ability and potential.
So when admissions staff selects applicants, they make use of a range of data (currently mainly educational, geo-demographic and social economic background), putting achievement in context.
This does not mean that institutions are moving away from academic rigour and high standards. Universities are seeking excellence by enabling them to identify the best applicants, those with the greatest potential and likelihood of a successful degree outcome.
Arguably, universities simply cannot afford to miss the opportunity to recruit high-achieving applicants at the top of their year groups from low-performing state schools or those living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood – particularly given the current economic climate.
What is important here is that the contextual data is not used alone, but alongside informed professional judgement and an applicant’s achievements. Each applicant must be treated on a case-by-case basis. This can mean lower entry requirements if the evidence is there to justify it, but does not have to.
Clearly, the use of contextual data is not a silver bullet but it is one way of ensuring that all applicants with the ability and potential have the opportunity to go on to higher education, regardless of factors over which they have no control.