Student opinion is divided on whether universities should give lower grade offers to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but undergraduates at Russell Group institutions are more likely to support the policy, according to the first poll of students on contextual admissions.
A survey of 1,035 full-time undergraduates in the UK by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that almost three-quarters (72 per cent) think university admissions should take account of applicants’ backgrounds. Support was higher among students at Russell Group universities, at 82 per cent, but much lower, 66 per cent, among those at post-92 institutions.
Another large proportion, 73 per cent, believe that it is harder to achieve good exam results if you grow up in a disadvantaged area.
However, just under half (47 per cent) of students surveyed backed universities making lower grade offers to those from disadvantaged areas, with a similar share (45 per cent) opposing such a move.
Support for contextual offers was stronger among students at Russell Group universities, with 57 per cent of this group in favour of the policy and 36 per cent opposed.
Hugo Dale-Harris, policy officer at Hepi and author of the report, said it was “striking that students at the most selective universities are most supportive”, given that they are the most likely to be affected by contextual admissions offers.
Of the 49 per cent of students who “strongly” believe that growing up in a disadvantaged area makes it harder to achieve good A-level results, an overwhelming majority (82 per cent) support contextual admissions.
The poll was conducted between 28 June and 1 July 2019.
The lack of overwhelming support for contextual admissions might be linked to perceptions regarding competition for university places and the academic ability of those with lower grades.
Just over half (53 per cent) of those surveyed disagreed with the notion that lower offers “would make it harder for students like me to get into university”, but 28 per cent agreed with this statement. Students from more advantaged backgrounds were more likely to agree with the statement.
Meanwhile, 54 per cent of students thought those admitted with lower grades would be able to keep up with the course requirements, but 38 per cent did not.
Awareness of the prevalence of contextual admissions is low, with two-thirds (65 per cent) of students saying they do not know whether their university makes contextual offers. Just one in six (16 per cent) is certain that it does and one in five (19 per cent) is certain that it does not.
The Office for Students has targets to reduce the ratio of students from the most advantaged areas at higher-tariff institutions from the current 5:1 to 3:1 by 2024-25 and to 1:1 by 2038-39. It regards contextual admissions as one tool for achieving this.
The report recommends that universities build greater confidence in contextual admissions by using a range of individual-level criteria rather than relying on “imprecise proxy measures”, such as postcodes or participation in widening access schemes.
It also calls on the OfS to collect evidence on the performance of contextually admitted students at different institutions, and on the effectiveness of foundation courses and other interventions for supporting these students.