English universities have been told to make more “ambitious” use of contextual admissions by the sector’s new regulator.
Chris Millward, the Office for Students’ director of fair access and participation, said that progress on diversifying higher education enrolment would be too slow if universities did not take greater account of applicants’ social background.
He advocated greater use of contextual admissions, which can see students from disadvantaged backgrounds get lower offers than their peers with more privileged upbringings.
“In the coming years, I will be expecting universities and colleges to set more ambitious targets in their access and participation plans to narrow the gaps,” said Mr Millward. “This will include measures to increase the pool of applicants with the high levels of attainment needed to enter many universities. But if we wait the years this will take to achieve, we will fail the next generation of students.
“An ambitious approach to contextual admissions must be central to our strategy if we are going to make progress on access at the scale and pace necessary to meet the expectations of government, students and the wider public. A level grades can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved.”
Mr Millward was commenting on the release of a report by the Fair Education Alliance which calls on the Office for Students to throw its weight behind use of contextual admissions.
The report, based on research from the University of Exeter, also says that universities should publicise the sort of data that they use in contextual admissions – school type, or neighbourhood participation data, for example – to improve transparency for applicants. It adds that better, individual-level data – such as information on free school meal eligibility – should be made available to universities to improve their decision-making.
Mr Millward added: “I do not believe that the inequality of access we see currently can reflect a lack of potential, and promoting equality of opportunity must be concerned with unlocking potential for students from all backgrounds.”
Research published by the Sutton Trust last year 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 leading universities.
A 2015 survey found that 84 per cent of UK universities used contextual admissions then, but last year’s Sutton Trust research found that there was little difference in the grades with which students from different backgrounds entered Russell Group universities.
Speaking earlier this year, Tim Bradshaw, the Russell Group’s chief executive, warned that taking contextual admissions “too far” and admitting poorer students with significantly lower grade profiles risked “setting up pupils to fail” at university.
Chris Hale, director of policy at Universities UK, said that institutions “have always used contextual information to help identify an applicant’s potential”.
He said: “Universities need a range of ways to identify disadvantage. At the moment, universities can look at relevant data from a number of sources, but there can be inconsistency in what is used. Improved data would inform their approach to contextualised admissions.
“Continued outreach work with schools and colleges is also vital in ensuring that students do not miss out on the opportunity to go to university.”