Applicants from poorer backgrounds who achieve just three Cs at A level should be accepted on to the UK’s most selective university courses that normally demand straight As, a group of leading education experts has argued.
Calling for highly selective universities to embrace much bolder contextualised admissions, three Durham University academics say that efforts to adjust university offers to reflect social disadvantage have not gone nearly far enough and require a “radical” shift in thinking.
In a new collection of essays published by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the social mobility charity Brightside, Durham social scientists Vikki Boliver, Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui state that those children who qualify for free school meals should be set substantially lower entry requirements by top universities to reflect the “significant economic and social obstacles to high achievement that [they face] at school”.
“It can be argued that it is not fair to set the bar for access to a top university at AAA+ for FSM and non-FSM children alike,” state the Durham academics in the publication, Where next for widening participation and fair access?, which was released on 14 August.
“A fairer bar for FSM children might be CCC and above, which 14 per cent of FSM children manage to achieve,” they add.
That would mark a radical departure for highly selective universities, even those that use contextual admissions, the paper says.
While 18 of the UK’s top 30 most selective universities use contextual admissions, they typically do so by “just one or two grades,” it explains. The University of Edinburgh had gone furthest by adjusting grade requirements from A*AA in English literature for most students to ABB for disadvantaged students.
However, only 1 per cent of FSM-eligible students will achieve AAA or better at A level (or its equivalent) by age 18, compared with 20 per cent of all other children educated in English state schools, the paper observes.
Lowering entry requirements for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds would represent a “shift away from formal equality of opportunity towards a concern with fair equality of opportunity”, the paper says.
It would also recognise that A-level grades are “not an entirely objective measure of attainment, but can serve as an indicator of potential when judged with reference to the socio-economic context in which they were achieved”.
However, this approach risks “less well-qualified students being set up to fail”, the paper admits.
While the authors argue that “CCC at A level indicates similar potential in an FSM student as AAA at A level does for students from more advantaged backgrounds", “obstacles to educational success” are likely to persist once these students enter university and institutions must do more to support poorer students to succeed academically, the authors argue.
“Radical change is needed not only in how universities select their undergraduates, but in how they support students to achieve their full potential while at university,” the paper concludes.