State pupils on same grades as private counterparts ‘get better degrees’

Contextual data debate likely to be reopened by landmark Hefce report

A major new study has reignited the debate on whether universities should discriminate in favour of state school pupils after it showed they got better degrees than private school applicants with the same A-level grades.

The landmark report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which analyses the achievement of 132,000 students over three years, says state school pupils are more likely to gain a 2:1 or first-class degree than independent school peers with the same A-level results.

State school pupils also achieved higher degree scores than their private school counterparts with the same GCSE grades, according to the report, titled Differences in degree outcomes, published on 28 March.

According to the report, 73 per cent of state school students with the equivalent of eight A grades at GCSE go on to gain a first or upper second, but this proportion drops to 69 per cent for independent school students with the same GCSE profile.

Some 52 per cent of students with eight B grades at GCSE gain a first or upper second compared with 43 per cent of independent school students, the report says.

It is likely to reopen the debate over whether universities should demand lower grades from state school pupils compared to private school applicants.

In its conclusions, Hefce says a male state school pupil with BBB was as likely to gain a 2:1 or first as a private school applicant with ABB at A level.

Commenting on the report, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the study “underlines the importance of universities being able to consider a range of factors alongside applicants’ entry grades”.

“Many universities have always used such contextual information to help identify an applicant’s potential, which cannot always be determined from entry grades alone,” Ms Dandridge added.

James Turner, director of programmes at the educational charity, the Sutton Trust, said the research “confirms early Sutton Trust studies showing that when students from state schools get to university, they are likely to do well.”

“Many of the world’s leading universities – in the UK, US and elsewhere – recognise that it is much harder to excel academically in some schools than others, and they use contextual admissions to help recruit bright students from less advantaged backgrounds,” he added.

However, Wendy Piatt, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents 24 research-intensive universities, said universities must be careful in how far it used the report’s conclusions.

“A ‘systematic’ or ‘blanket’ approach to the use of contextual information is highly problematic because it can rely too heavily on data which is limited in how far it can reveal a true picture of the candidate’s background,” she said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the report’s findings “will be disliked by some of the various organisations that represent private schools”.

However, he added that the research had come at a “less useful time than it might have done”.

“The Coalition’s determination to remove the student number cap from institutions means they will be free to recruit as many students as they desire,” Mr Hillman said.

“So fine judgements between different candidates based upon their individual characteristics could become rarer”, he said, adding that institutions will no longer be fined for over-recruiting.

Les Ebdon, director of fair access, also welcomed the “important research [which] shows that a student’s background influences their likely degree outcome”.

Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of Hefce, said the study made “an important contribution to the growing evidence base on achievement in higher education”, which would “inform discussion and debate” and “stimulate action”.


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