Contextual analysis 1

March 11, 2010

Considering the attention devoted to it in the piece by Geoff Lucas ("Questions of context: low marks for crude admissions policies", 28 January), the "contexting" of university applications and decisions had a surprisingly low profile in the lengthy article on widening participation, "Mind the gap" (25 February).

Yet against the generally agreed background of "difficult times ahead" for the agenda, such contexting offers an attractive opportunity to develop robust and consistent methodologies that navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis sketched in the article: the "grade fetish", face-value acceptance of school-leavers' attainment as the best indicator of degree-course potential; and the adoption of an idealised intake profile, shorn of any supporting evidence.

The first ignores the likelihood that educational disadvantage, from whatever source, makes school qualifications an uncertain guide to potential, while the latter lays universities open to legal challenge and charges of "social engineering".

Through the analysis of potential sources of educational disadvantage evident in discordances between the entry and exit academic profiles of recent undergraduate cohorts, my university has chosen to reformulate its widening-participation milestones and advice (note, not instruction) to admissions tutors in terms of the academic performance of the schools generating its applications. The eventual effectiveness of this will be assessed through ongoing monitoring and review.

We focus on identifying those candidates with the greatest potential, based on research on a widely cast net of possible generators of educational disadvantage. But we respect the ultimate judgement by admissions tutors on applicants as individuals: they use contextual information as part of a holistic, non-formulaic assessment of the available evidence on Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms.

Tony Hoare, Widening participation research director, University of Bristol.

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