Sutton Trust calls for greater use of contextual data in university admissions

By agency reporter
October 27, 2017

Lowering university offers for disadvantaged pupils by just two grades could lead to a 50 per cent increase in the number of free school meals eligible pupils admitted to top universities. This could potentially benefit up to 750 such pupils each year, as well as many more young people from low and moderate income backgrounds. This is one of the major findings of a new report from the Sutton Trust that examines the extent of contextual admissions at 30 of the most selective universities in the UK.

The research, by a team led by Professor Vikki Boliver of Durham University and Dr Claire Crawford of Warwick University, found little difference in the grades with which students from different backgrounds entered university, with those from neighbourhoods with low university participation rates having A-level grades just a quarter of a grade less than those from higher participation neighbourhoods.

This apparent lack of success in admitting larger numbers of students with lower grades from contextual backgrounds may reflect the lack of consistency and the lack of transparency in how selective universities use contextual data.

While a majority said that they used contextual data to decide which pupils to admit, they used different indicators in different ways, with many universities leaving decisions to the discretion of individual departments.

Just four universities indicated that all contextually eligible applicants would be guaranteed a reduced grade offer, with a further nine guaranteeing a reduced grade offer for those who have completed a widening access programme, such as the Sutton Trust’s summer schools. The report also found a wide distribution of A level results among better-off students, with as many as one in five advantaged students entering these highly selective universities with grades at or below BBC, the level at which the 50 per cent increase in disadvantaged students would be achieved.

Worryingly, a substantial number of universities give little or no information to applicants about how they use contextual data and which factors they look at. This lack of transparency is a barrier to access, as potentially eligible students – often those with fewer networks and least access to information – may be unaware that they could benefit.

While the university access gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers has narrowed in recent years, the gap at the most selective institutions remains stubborn and wide. To widen access to students from less privileged backgrounds, the Trust is calling on universities – and selective universities in particular – to make greater use of contextual admissions, including making lower grade offers.

Importantly, the report finds little evidence that universities that are more likely to contextualise admissions see significantly higher dropout rates, lower degree completion rates, or lower degree class results amongst their students. This suggests there is no reason to believe that contextualisation should lead to lower standards.

The report, Admissions inContext, recommends that:

  • Universities should make greater use of individual-level indicators, like whether a young person has been eligible for free school meals, to contextualise admissions, as these better capture the personal circumstances of applicants.
  • There should be greater transparency from universities when communicating how they are using contextual data.
  • Students who have been admitted with lower grades should receive support they need to successfully complete their degree courses, in recognition of the additional difficulties they may face. Greater use should be made of foundation years – to support learning for disadvantaged students through an extra ‘Year 0’ – as they can help to bridge wider attainment gaps for those admitted from contextual backgrounds.

The Trust is also reviewing the indicators it uses to prioritise applicants for its highly popular summer schools at 12 leading universities. 10,000 students applied for 2,000 places at Sutton Trust summer schools in 2017.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation said: “Getting a degree from a top university is one of the surest routes to a good job.  However young people from low and moderate income homes are substantially under-represented at these universities.  We need a radical change to shift this. A central element when applying to leading universities must be to use contextual admissions.  By contextual admissions we mean that the social background of a university applicant is taken into account in the admissions process.

“At top American universities like Harvard and Yale giving low and moderate income students a break is the norm.  There is no reason why our leading universities should not do the same.”

Dr Claire Crawford, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, said: "Despite a substantial increase in the numbers of universities that report taking account of students’ backgrounds when making application decisions, it is amazing how little difference there is between the average grades of young people from rich and poor backgrounds who are admitted to selective universities. While the relatively small numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who secure the highest A-level grades remains the biggest barrier to widening access to elite institutions, our analysis shows that more widespread and transparent use of contextual data could make a significant difference."

* Read the report Admissions in Context here

* The Sutton Trust https://www.suttontrust.com/


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