Durham researchers lead report calling on universities to be “bolder in their use of contextual data”


A report conducted by education experts at Durham University, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has outlined a need to widen participation and access to  less advantaged students.

Research for the report used interviews with admission heads and selectors at 17 English universities, which were conducted in 2017/18. It also looked towards the future, examining Access and Participation Plans for 25 universities “with high academic entry requirements” from 2020-2025.

The report found that English universities are increasingly recognising the socioeconomic and educational contexts of applicants.

Despite this progress, the report, named Fair Admission to Universities in England: Improving Policy and Practice identified key areas universities need to improve on.

Some of these suggestions included:

  • Reducing entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants by more than one or two grades.
  • Contextualising all admissions criteria. This would include GCSE grades and performances at interviews.

The report’s overall recommendation is that the method of how admissions are conducted needs to be changed. Socioeconomic circumstances, they argue, should be taken into account, rather than just who has the highest qualifications.

Professor Vikki Boliver, in the Department of Sociology at Durham, is the lead author of the project. She commented on the findings of the report. She said progress so far had been “tentative” but “positive” and that the report demonstrates that “if you really want to widen participation and correct for previous inequities then universities need to step up and say grades aren’t necessarily an accurate indicator of how smart someone is or whether they will do well”. She also went on to say that Durham needs to be “bolder” in helping disadvantaged students.

The report includes a rather extensive list of recommendations and national policy options for universities to use. These included:

  • Aim to become progressively bolder in the use of contextual data relating to the socio-economic circumstances of applicants when making admissions decisions;
  • Commit to the contextualised assessment of all selection criteria, used formally or informally, in making admissions decisions including GCSE grades, entrance test scores, personal statements, references, portfolios of work and performances at interview;
  • Better academic support and newly inclusive approaches to teaching and learning should continue to be developed to benefit all students, but especially those from disadvantaged or under-represented groups to help them achieve their full potential when they are at university;
  • Enable a shift to post-qualifications admissions (PQA) so that admissions decisions are based on the contextualised consideration of achieved rather than predicted grades;
  • Replace the area-based widening access metric POLAR with individual-level measures of socio-economic disadvantage and make this information available to universities so that it can be used to inform individual admissions decisions;
  • Make it a requirement for universities to record and report on the number of applications they receive from prospective students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and on admissions decisions made about these applications;

Cheryl Lloyd, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said: “This report provides important suggestions to inform reviews of admissions policies at university and national level, and reassuring evidence about the commitment of universities to fair admissions.”

She also said that “We would welcome universities taking the broader achievements of applicants into account, including different qualification pathways and the circumstances of student’s prior attainment. At the same time, universities should also look to strengthen their approaches to supporting students from different backgrounds whilst as university.”


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