Last week, this blog focused on the use of ‘contextual data’ – i.e. considering applicants’ schooling or family background – in the admissions process. The central question was whether universities are engaging in social engineering, or simply striving for excellence by seeking out the best applicants. Like all hotly contested issues, some of the hard facts have been lost in the debate and certain myths allowed to gain currency.
This week, to help dispel some of the myths that have arisen over the last few years around contextual data, the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions Programme (SPA), supported by Universities UK, held a conference to discuss the issue. This provided us with a great opportunity to debate, in a more measured way, the issues making the headlines and to explore the research evidence and views across the education sector. This topic is probably the most sensitive of all those in admissions, and is where there really is a need for evidence-based policy, rather than policy-based evidence or even anecdotal evidence.
Delegates heard from a range of experts including leading academic researchers working in this field: Anna Zimdars from King’s College London and Tony Hoare from the University of Bristol, as well as senior managers working in schools and colleges and in higher education.
As chair of SPA, I was delighted to invite Chris Cook, Education Correspondent at the Financial Times to chair the morning. For those of you who don’t know, Chris has written many interesting blogs that have presented uniquely available evidence about school performance, by school type and student performance at age 16, by socio-economic class.
Chris opened the event by stating that contextual data “is the next big argument in higher education”, and I think this is absolutely right. I am sure that Alan Milburn – currently undertaking a review for government on social mobility – will have a lot more to say on this in his report on higher education due out shortly.
From my perspective, the crux of the case for considering contextual data is that the university degree potential of students from under-represented groups might be underrepresented by their end-of-school academic grades. Unless this is taken into account by higher education admissions staff, the profile of those they admit would not be a fair reflection of those with the academic potential to succeed at their institutions.
Why do I say this? Keeping to my earlier point about having evidence – if we delve into the research, we can see that socio-economic differences in university progression are underpinned by educational inequalities. We only need look at the following statistics on attainment at GCSE level based upon DfE performance data to see the reality of gaps that exists. Although it only covers English schools, it is still quite telling:
- Eight schools educate 1,600 pupils of whom 850 get five A* grades or better, compared to 1,900 schools educating 250,000 pupils of whom 850 will get five or more A* grades at GCSE.
- And, at A-level, according to national statistics produced by the DfE for 2010-11, the percentage of examinations receiving grades A*, A, or B for 16-18 year-olds by type of institution in England are:
Further education college 45%
However, as was apparent at the conference, views on contextual data continue to differ. In view of this, it is essential that universities have a clear rationale for using it and their own evidence base to inform their decisions.
I would suggest that, as a sector, we need to go beyond this and develop our evidence base about how applicants admitted via contextual offers perform relative to students admitted on standard offers. We also need to understand the reasons for the differences between the various published studies.
Finally, it is essential that applicants understand what we mean when we use contextual data and how it is used.
This was an important point made by Tessa Stone, Chief Executive of Brightside Trust and Chair of the Bridge Group at the conference. All the recent debates and articles over contextual data are not about students or the applicant experience. It’s about politics. Tessa went on to say that none of this has any significance for prospective students. They want to understand what’s on offer, make well informed and appropriate choices and, wherever possible and appropriate, make successful applications and have a successful university experience. I could not agree more. As universities we have a responsibility to ensure the use of contextual data is transparent to applicants and their advisers. We must be clear about what contextual data is used, if any, how it will be used, when it is used and how it was used in previous years.
To support this we must do some specific work on busting the myths around widening participation and fair access. Although universities may continue to be criticised for social engineering, the important point is that applicants may lose out while the debate rumbles on. And no-one wants that.
Professor Sir Steve Smith is Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Exeter.