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Fair Admission to Universities in England: Improving Policy and Practice

As a governor why should I read this?

The report is significant and noteworthy for governors because of related calls from the government and the OfS for faster progress on widening access to HE and the debate surrounding contextual admissions.

News alert

This report presents the findings of a Nuffield Foundation funded research project which set out to explore how universities in England offering courses with high academic entry requirements and a high demand for places conceptualise fair admissions in policy terms and operationalise fair admissions in practice. The study looked at to what extent universities are applying “contextual admissions” policies (taking socio-economic factors into account) to their assessment of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. It draws on interviews in 2017-18 with university Heads of Admission at 17 HE institutions (HEIs) in England, interviews with 51 admissions selectors at the same HEIs and analysis of Access and Participation Plans (APPs) produced by 25 higher entry tariff universities.

The analysis focuses on the extent to which admissions policies and practices aligned with each of two competing perspectives on fair access and admissions:

  1. The traditional ‘meritocratic equality of opportunity’ model, which holds that university places should go to the most highly qualified candidates irrespective of social background in accordance with the principle of procedural fairness interpreted as equal treatment.
  2. An alternative ‘meritocratic equity of opportunity’ model, which holds that prospective students’ qualifications should be judged in light of the socioeconomic circumstances in which they were obtained in the pursuit of a greater degree of distributive fairness with regard to the allocation of university places.

The full report can be found at:

Key points at-a-glance:

  • Universities should aim to become “progressively bolder” in their use of contextual admissions by increasing the size of grade reductions or making them more widely available to disadvantaged students. Other selection criteria such as GCSE attainment, personal statements and interview performance, such also be contextualised (p4, p6)
  • Interviews revealed that fair access was largely framed around traditional meritocratic equality of opportunity models. HEIs sought to admit the “best students” with the highest predicted grades (p2)
  • While all of the pre-1992 universities had some form of contextualised admissions policy, only half routinely reduced entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants, typically by one or two grades. Instead, other institutions gave additional consideration to these disadvantaged applicants who were predicted to achieve entry grades (p2)
  • Most Heads of Admissions reported resistance by some academic staff members to reducing entry requirements on the grounds that it was setting students up to fail. Many reported that current academic support structures were not up to the task of supporting such students (p2)
  • Access and Participation Plans (APPs) for 2020/21 to 2024/5 set more ambitious widening access targets than ever before. However, the dearth of highly qualified applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds was identified as a major obstacle (p4)
  • The APPs show a shift in thinking away from a deficit model to a structural understanding of social inequalities. Only four of the 25 higher-tariff universities continue to require that disadvantaged applicants meet standard entry requirements (p4)
  • Universities should be transparent and provide information to applicants about their contextual admissions. They should proactively communicate to prospective students and the wider public their commitment to contextualised admissions policies and to inclusive teaching and learning practices (p4, p114)
  • National policy makers should shift to a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system to make it easier for institutions to select applicants with a mind to distributive fairness (p5)
  • The area-based POLAR widening access metric should be replaced with data on free school meal status and be made available to universities via UCAS (p6)
  • Universities should continue to develop academic support systems and inclusive approaches to teaching and learning (p5)

Implications for governance

The report is significant and noteworthy for governors because it adds to growing calls from the government and regulators for faster progress on widening access to HE, and is published amid admissions reviews from the Office for Students, UCAS (currently paused), UUK, and the DFE. The Office for Students has been calling for universities to consider contextual admissions as part of a move towards being more ambitious and innovative in reducing inequalities since May 2019 (see Contextual Admissions: Promoting fairness and rethinking merit).

The Nuffield Foundation report says its research show clear signs of progress, and indeed this is perhaps borne out by recent developments such as Cambridge University’s decision to offer a free Foundation Year with relatively low entry grades for disadvantaged students. However, its headline recommendation that universities should become “progressively bolder” in their use of contextual data to inform admissions decisions suggests institutions still have some distance to travel along this path.

While the study finds that universities that have pioneered contextual admissions practices have increased their ambition over time, “many universities have only recently begun to dip their toes in the water”, and use of contextual data is still often only on a “piecemeal or informal basis”. Governors may wish to consider where their institution stands in this spectrum from the pioneers to the toe-dippers, and what this means for its strategic and operational planning.

The recommendations of the report should also be considered in the context of the renewed debate on the proposed introduction of Post Qualification Admissions, which it backs, and which has been supported by UCAS and UUK and considered by the OfS in their admissions reviews. If introduced, PQA could impact a range of governance areas, from admissions numbers and finance, admission department processes, procedures and staffing, to the length of the academic year.

The PQA debate has also gained traction following the chaos of last summers’ A level results and its impact on university admissions. University leaders are already expressing concerns about the government’s plans for exam alternatives and how grades will be awarded this year. Although the Nuffield Foundation Report does not mention the pandemic, the cancellation of the 2021 exams and the possible consequences for disadvantaged students means university admissions are under the spotlight once again, which could have reputational implications.

The report suggests a cultural shift may need to be brought about in many institutions to address a mismatch between ambitions set out in universities’ Access and Participation Plans, and resistance noted by heads of admissions among some academic staff members to reducing academic entry requirements for socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants, on the grounds that doing so would inevitably set those students up to fail. It notes: “Many HoAs were aware that an overhaul of support for contextually disadvantaged students would be needed to ensure that potential was reliably converted into achievement at university.”

View the full report

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