The issues raised by the idea of contextualised university admissions, discussed in a new study today, bring back stinging memories of my personal experience of similar policies. I went to a comprehensive school, you see, and apparently, as I found out when applying to certain universities, this meant I was different.
All those years ago I had my heart set on studying biomedical science and with a good academic record I expected no less than to do this at a prestigious university. I spent hours poring over my personal statement and taking care with my applications. I was lucky enough to receive offers from numerous institutions and my dad diligently drove me on a nationwide tour for their open days.
At one of the open days, after the obligatory laboratory tour and talk about what this particular university could do for students, the organisers put us into small groups led by a member of staff. The man leading my group of six or seven young people asked us each to introduce ourselves to the group, talk about our predicted grades and the offer that we had received.
As each of the people sitting in the circle rattled off the same entry criteria it dawned on me that I had been given a lower offer than everyone else. When it came to my turn, I nervously revealed the grades that constituted my offer and quickly asked why they were different from everyone else’s. The guy looked at his notes and then told me it was because the university was trying to encourage more students “from backgrounds like mine”.
I still remember those words to this day, and I still remember feeling absolutely mortified as everyone else in the circle just looked at me. Up until this point of my life, I had never had any reason to question my background. I remember feeling angry because I was expected to get the same grades as everyone else in the circle, but for some reason this university had absolutely no faith in my achieving them.
It turns out the university may have had some grounds to worry. I can’t even count on two hands the number of biology teachers I had during my A-level course. I forget the exact number now, but it was in double digits, because of a staffing crisis caused by the sudden death of one teacher and the resignation of another. Teaching in A-level chemistry did not fare much better. At one point my classmates and I were left in a room with a pile of textbooks and told to teach ourselves for weeks on end after our teacher had a nervous breakdown.
Thankfully, and I know how lucky I am here, the university need not have worried. Come results day, I exceeded the grades my teachers had predicted, and those contained in the offer letter from that particular institution.
Needless to say, I rejected my place there. After that group session, the member of staff asked me whether I would be considering the university’s offer. I told him, as bluntly as a miffed 17-year-old can do, that I didn’t think I would fit into the university with a “background” like mine. And I’m pretty sure I made inverted comma signs with my hands, too.
In the end, I opted for the university that, on reflection, was the most welcoming to me. I loved it but there was no denying that my “background” was different from many of my Russell Group peers.
I felt belittled and humiliated by my open day dealings. The whole experience left a sour taste in my mouth as I know that university treated me differently because of where I came from.
I do not claim to have any direct experience of the environment that some students grow up in, nor do I claim to have any understanding of how this affects their achievements. But my experience of contextualised admissions leaves me questioning whether reducing a student’s offer grades to fit their experiences could ever have the desired effect.
My experience demonstrates how contextualised admissions open up the risk that students with backgrounds like mine will perceive the kind of double standards and snobbery that might mean they choose not to attend.