Comment Blog 28 November, 2018

Why universities should be interested in where applicants come from.

Since Reform’s first report on university access was published last year, things have moved rapidly in widening participation. Unfortunately, not when it comes to the actual intake of disadvantaged students, as this year’s report displays. Sustained and significant increases in the proportion of disadvantaged students at ‘elite universities’ are rare, and few still manage to achieve it.

Where progress has been seen, however, is in the approach to widening participation. The Office for Students, which came into effect this year, has set out a clear ambition for ”the biggest shake up of access and participation regulation since 2004”, when the Office for Fair Access was established. The new Director for Fair Access and Participation, Chris Millward, has emphasised the need for clarity when it comes to the intended outcomes of widening participation activities, and how they will be evaluated.

This particular point, addressing the need for greater clarity of accountability, was one strongly called for in last year’s Joining the Elite. Debates over access to university were turning cyclical, as elite universities were repeatedly criticised for not accepting enough applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. In turn, these universities would argue the only reason they had a lower intake of disadvantaged students was because these applicants did not have the prior attainment required to be academically successful at their institution. To rectify this, widening participation activities focused in large part on younger students, such as campus visits, for which there was no real way of proving effectiveness.

There are two key reasons to feel hopeful of overcoming this repetitive and unproductive discussion. One is in the growing strength of the evidence base of what works in terms of interventions for younger students, through initiatives such as the Higher Education Access Tracker, which most universities now subscribe to. It links children’s and young people’s participation in outreach activities to their further progression. In this way, universities can still get credit if those who participated in their activities go on to attend other education institutions.

The second is the explicit demand that it is not enough, even for the most selective universities, to focus on outreach and raising attainment – they must also increase the diversity of their own intakes. This point is again one Millward is committed to, and why he has encouraged universities to be more ambitious on the introduction of contextualised admissions. Contextualised admissions, where universities consider an applicant’s background when deciding whether to extend an offer, is becoming almost ubiquitous at selective universities, as a report published by the Fair Education Alliance found earlier this year.

While this is positive, today’s Reform report also highlights the need for greater clarity in contextualised admissions practices, and makes an encouraging call for applicants to be able to check their eligibility for contextualised consideration, and what that means for their admissions chances. But to increase awareness and improve outcomes, some attitudes towards contextualised admissions must be overcome. This includes one recently expressed by Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford who argued: “Our interest is in the quality of their minds, not where they came from (…)’.

While this view is well-intended, it is misplaced. Universities should be interested in where applicants come from. As long as the education system in the UK isn’t fair, as long as a child in the most disadvantaged areas is eight times more likely to go to a school rated as inadequate, universities must help to increase fairness rather than reinforce unfairness.

There is now greater hope that they will be held accountable for doing so. If the coming year lives up to the expectations created this past year, it should show in the next iteration of the Reform rankings.

Emilie is a Policy Officer at Teach First and a former Researcher at Reform.