Call for ‘radical change’ in admissions at top UK universities

Sutton Trust says contextual admissions must become ‘central’ as report reveals uneven use across sector

October 26, 2017
Gonville and Caius, Cambridge

The Sutton Trust wants elite UK universities to make a “radical change” to their admissions policies by providing many more reduced grade offers to disadvantaged students.

In his boldest call so far for the lowering of university offers for applicants from deprived backgrounds, Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the influential education charity, said that top universities must make contextual admissions a “central element” of their admissions processes.

“Reflecting the difficulty of the journey taken by those from disadvantaged backgrounds should be a common sense principle in university admissions,” said Sir Peter, who added that “giving low and moderate income students a break is the norm” at top US universities.

His call coincides with the Sutton Trust’s publication of a report on 26 October, which found that lowering university offers for disadvantaged pupils by two grades (from AAA to ABB, for example) could lead to a 50 per cent increase in the number of pupils eligible for free school meals admitted to top universities.

This would see an extra 750 such pupils admitted to 30 selective universities allied to the Sutton Trust each year, pushing the total to 2,250, as well as helping many more young people from low and moderate income backgrounds.

The report, titled “Admissions in Context: the use of contextual information by leading universities”, found that, while the majority of the 30 Sutton Trust universities claimed to use contextual admissions, there was little difference in the grades with which students from different backgrounds entered university. Those from neighbourhoods with low university participation rates had A-level grades just a quarter of a grade lower than those from higher participation neighbourhoods.

“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,” said the report’s co-author Claire Crawford, assistant professor of economics at the University of Warwick, who led the research with Durham University social scientist Vikki Boliver.

Nonetheless, there was a wide distribution of A-level results among more well-off students, with as many as one in five advantaged students entering top universities with grades at or below BBC, the report found.

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

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 use of contextual admissions is most widespread at the University of Bristol, where these adjusted offers appeared to be made in more than 60 per cent of courses. In contrast, fewer than 10 per cent of courses appeared to use contextual offers at the universities of Bath, Cambridge, Manchester and Sheffield, the report says.

It also says that a substantial number of universities give little or no information to applicants about how they use contextual data and which factors they look at, the report says. This lack of transparency means that potentially eligible students – often those with fewer networks and least access to information – may be unaware that they could benefit, it adds.

Responding to the report, Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, said that its members “used contextualised admissions and data and have developed foundation courses to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in accessing higher education”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Ok, I think I have read this with close attention, but it isn't clear to me. Is this about Oxford and Cambridge only ? Because if it is, then perhaps we need to start recognizing that there are other equally good, and in some subjects, better universities.

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