Education news

A-level grades should be considered alongside students' background - watchdog

Contextual admissions is the practice of using extra information, besides predicted grades or qualifications

UNIVERSITIES should look at A-level grades alongside background information about potential students when making offers, to give all young people fair access to higher education, according to a watchdog.

Chris Millward, the Office for Students' director for fair access, is suggesting institutions should be "ambitious" in their approach to using "contextual admissions".

The call comes as a new report urges universities to be more transparent about the information on students they take into account when deciding who should be offered places.

The report, published by the Fair Education Alliance (FEA), says that institutions should be required to publicise the contextual data they use in admissions, for example by putting it on the Ucas application page for each course.

Mr Millward said an ambitious approach was needed to meet the expectations of government, students and the wider public.

"A-level grades can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved," he said.

"I do not believe that the inequality of access we see currently can reflect a lack of potential, and promoting equality of opportunity must be concerned with unlocking potential for students from all backgrounds.

"We are a long way from equality of opportunity in relation to access to higher education. So in the coming years, I will be expecting universities and colleges to set more ambitious targets in their access and participation plans to narrow the gaps."

Contextual admissions is the practice of using extra information, besides predicted grades or qualifications, on areas such as where a potential student lives, where they went to school and their socio-economic background, to assess a student's achievement and suitability for a degree course.

Many universities use some form of contextual data.

The FEA report, which focused mainly on highly selective universities, said: "While contextualisation has become more accepted, it is applied in a wealth of ways across higher education institutions (HEIs) and it is often unclear (particularly for applicants) exactly which practices are undertaken.

"We believe this is impeding the spread of good practice, and is creating an unacceptable position for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds whereby it is likely they will be considered a 'contextual' applicant at some HEIs, and not at others, and will have no way of knowing which universities will take their background into account."

Recommendations include a call for universities to be given more, and better, information on students' background and for institutions to publish details of their annual student intakes.

"We want to see change in widening participation within the most selective universities," FEA chief Sam Butters said.

"We know that parents' income, the quality of school attended and a myriad of other background factors affect educational outcomes for young people, including how well they do in their exams and their likelihood of progressing to higher education.

"Contextualised admissions are a way of overcoming this challenge and recognising the additional barriers disadvantaged young people face, but we need some changes to how the practice is being used for it to be effective."

Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, which represents 24 selective institutions including Queen's University Belfast, said: "All Russell Group universities use contextual data to identify talented students, regardless of their background."

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