Universities should take “much stronger account” of the context in which students achieve their results by giving lower offers to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the higher education watchdog has said.
The Office for Students said there is currently “no clearly understood approach” in England to so-called “contextual admissions”, and argued that extending lower offers wouldn’t compromise academic standards.
While students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to attend university than in the past, the OfS said there has been “little progress in reducing equality gaps”, particularly at the “highest tariff” universities that require the best grades.
In 2018, for example, 18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas were nearly six times more likely to enter higher-tariff institutions compared with those from the least advantaged areas.
Widening access to university
In a report on contextual admissions, the OfS said research suggested that higher-tariff universities are “too conservative” when making contextual offers, only reducing grades for students from low-participation neighbourhoods by half an A-level grade on average.
The majority of English universities make no reference in their admissions information to how they use contextual data or whether they make contextual offers, and the OfS found “no clearly understood approach to contextual admissions across the higher education sector”.
The OfS urged universities to “take much stronger account of the context in which exam results are achieved… to recognise the potential of candidates from disadvantaged and other underrepresented backgrounds who could make a major contribution to their communities and to the wider economy and society”.
It said that if high tariff-providers lowered their advertised grades to BCC for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it would “broaden the pool of available applicants without a marked fall in academic standards”.
Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, will tell a conference in London today: “Fair access is often caricatured as a zero-sum game: poorer kids denying places to richer kids with better A levels.
“But to see it in those terms is to miss the point. We are wasting talent, denying opportunity and hurting our economy by not making the most of our greatest asset: our people.
“A young person from a council estate who gets decent A levels has often had to work a lot harder than the young person from a better off neighbourhood who gets a few grades more. That’s why it is right… that contextual admissions are now an increasing part of the picture.”