OfS urges English elite to go further on contextual admissions

Regulator suggests that most selective universities could admit students with grades BCC at A level without a marked fall in academic standards

May 1, 2019

England’s higher education regulator has suggested that the country’s most selective universities should consider admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds with grades BCC at A level, warning that reducing entry requirements by one or two grades will not be sufficient to hit access targets.

In a report published on 1 May, the Office for Students calls for a radical rethinking of how merit is judged in enrolment decisions, citing new research that shows that students with lower grades are still able to thrive in the country’s most selective higher education institutions.

It says that only 14 of these “high-tariff” universities and 10 other providers currently indicated that they might lower their entry requirements by between one and five grades for applicants whose background might have impacted on their success at school.

However, the OfS says that lowering requirements by one or two grades “will not be enough to close the access gap”. In 2018, pupils from the most advantaged areas were 5.7 times more likely to enter high-tariff universities than their counterparts from the least advantaged backgrounds, but the regulator has said that it wants to eliminate that gap within the next 20 years.

Last year Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents the UK’s most selective universities, warned that lowering entry requirements too far risked “setting up pupils to fail”.

However, the OfS study points to recent research by Durham University academics that found that the chance of those students entering a high-tariff university with grades BCC ultimately leaving with a bachelor’s degree – 80 per cent – was not much lower than the chance enjoyed by those who achieved AAB – 88 per cent.

Students with BCC had a lower chance of achieving a first or 2:1 – 46 per cent versus 76 per cent – but the Durham researchers said that the results nonetheless demonstrated that students with lower grades had the “potential” to succeed.

As such, it was “crucial” that a shift to greater use of contextual admissions was accompanied by improved student support, the OfS said.

“As it stands, the implementation of contextual admissions does not go far enough,” the report says. “Research has shown that lowering advertised grades at high-tariff providers to BCC, for example, would broaden the pool of available applicants without a marked fall in academic standards.”

Chris Millward, the OfS’ director for fair access and participation, said that universities must begin “rethinking merit”. “Just looking at exam results in admission doesn’t recognise potential enough, given the very strong link we see between social background and school attainment,” he said.


Academics and university leaders will discuss university access and how institutions can play an effective role in creating a more inclusive society at Times Higher Education’s Teaching Excellence Summit, which is taking place at Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada, from 4-6 June 2019.


Print headline: OfS urges England’s elites to ‘rethink merit’

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