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Widening participation through contextualised admissions

Prof. Vikki Boliver looks at how considering an applicant’s qualifications in light of their circumstances is key to ensuring potential is not overlooked.
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Context matters

Many higher education institutions in Scotland and other parts of the UK are increasingly taking a contextualised approach to undergraduate admissions decisions. Contextualised admissions recognises that considering applicant’s qualifications in light of their socioeconomic circumstances is key to ensuring that the potential of socioeconomically disadvantaged learners is not overlooked. The SFC Impact for Access project, Mapping and evaluating the use of contextual data in undergraduate admissions in Scotland, offers guidance to universities on how to increase the effectiveness of their contextual admissions policies with a view to making greater progress on widening participation. The project reports include guidance on selecting relevant and robust indicators of contextual disadvantage, and on setting entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants at levels which recognise their academic potential and more accurately reflect what is needed to do well at degree level.

Identifying contextually disadvantaged applicants

The effectiveness of contexualised admissions depends critically on the use of indicators of contextual disadvantage that are both valid and reliable. The report argues that the most valid indicators of contextual disadvantage are those that refer to the personal circumstances of individuals and their immediate households. Indicators which refer to the area in which an individual lives, or the school they attend, are generally less valid because the circumstances of the average person an area or school may not accurately reflect the circumstances of specific individuals. The report also argues that the most reliable indicators of contextual disadvantaged are those that are administratively verified. Indicators based on self-reported information that has not been formally verified are inherently less reliable, as are indicators with a lot of missing data.Widening access

Ideally an indicator would never identify an individual as disadvantaged when they are not, and would never identify an individual as not disadvantaged when they in fact are. In practice, however, indicators that are good at flagging up only genuinely disadvantaged individuals tend to be less good at ensuring that no genuinely disadvantaged individuals are missed. Conversely, indicators that are good at always flagging up genuinely disadvantaged individuals tend to be less good at ensuring that only genuinely disadvantaged individuals are flagged. Some indicators are far from perfect in both respects.

Faced with the dilemma of no perfect indicator of contextual disadvantage, the report argues that higher education institutions should give primacy to indicators that are good at flagging up only genuinely disadvantaged individuals. Such indicators include having spent time in care, being a carer for a family member, holding refugee or asylum seeker status, having been in receipt of free school meals, and being in receipt of an Education Maintenance Allowance. Applicants who meet any one of these criteria are almost certainly socioeconomically disadvantaged, and by using all of these indicators on an either/or basis institutions can be confident that their contextual admissions policies will be reaching the intended beneficiaries. Indicators that are not so good at flagging up only genuinely disadvantaged individuals – notably area-level and school-level measures of disadvantage – should be used with much greater caution, for example only combination with other indicators which corroborate the likely disadvantaged status of the individual.

Setting entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants

The effectiveness of contextualised admissions rests not just on the use of robust indicators of contextual disadvantage, but also on the appropriately ambitious adjustment of academic entry requirements for contextually disadvantage applicants. Many Scottish universities already adjust entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged by one or two grades, sometimes more for those who have successfully completed pre-entry widening participation programmes. However, the Commission on Widening Access has advocated that:

“By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately reflects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.” (CoWA 2016: 15).

Our report offers a high-level analysis of the impact of school attainment on the probability of success in higher education, measured in terms of successful progression from year one to year two of a degree programme, and achievement of a first or upper second class degree. The findings indicate that minimum entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants could be set more ambitiously than at present. For example, the most selective Scottish universities could admit contextually disadvantaged applicants with grades BBBBB at Higher level without fear of setting those students up to fail. The report shows that setting minimum entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants at BBBBB rather than AAABB would more than double the pool of contextually disadvantaged applicants eligible for admission to these institutions.

The minimum entry requirements suggested in the report are, of course, indicative rather than definitive, since these are likely to vary to some extent from programme to programme. We encourage universities to use the minimum entry requirements suggested in the report as a point of reference when developing the evidence base with specific reference to their own programmes. What is clear, however, is that Scottish universities do have the scope to be much bolder in their approach to contextualised admissions, and that doing so could bring about a step-change in progress towards wider access.

Read the full report - Mapping and evaluating the use of contextual data.

Professor Vikki Boliver, School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University - 31 Oct 2017

 
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