Laying the foundations for fair access: annual report 2017 from the Commissioner for Fair Access

This is the first annual report from the Commissioner for Fair Access, covering the wider context of access to higher education in Scotland.

Chapter 6: Contextual Admissions

The use of contextual admissions by universities is perhaps the most powerful instrument available to promote fair access. Applicants with a range of characteristics, including coming from SIMD20 areas, have been given adjusted offers, which means they do not to have to achieve the advertised grades. Contextual admissions are used by all universities, but in particular by more selective universities that normally require high grades. Typically the adjusted offers made are complex with a number of variants for different courses - both with regard to the terms of the offers and also the process by which they are decided.

It is worth emphasising that making different offers to different applicants is not a new practice; nor is it simply a means for recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Regardless of 'fair access', universities have always aimed to recruit the best students - in terms not simply of current levels of attainment but future potential. It has long been recognised that levels of (formal) attainment in terms of Highers (and other qualifications) have been influenced by a range of factors apart from the ability of individual students - including socioeconomic background; the type of school attended (and, in particular, the number of pupils going on to university); and parental or family experience of higher education. These other factors have always had to be taken into account in assessing future potential. It is misleading to suggest that contextual admissions and adjusted offers 'dumb down' standards. Standards are being maintained by taking into account a wider range of contextual factors.

Only with the very large increase in the number of students, which has made it difficult to make more personalised offers, have universities resorted to standardised offers for most applicants. This trend towards standardised offers has also been encouraged by the need for greater transparency. But contextual admissions and adjusted offers are not radical new devices to secure fair access; they are - or should be - good practice.

Implementing contextual admissions

A considerable amount of work has already been undertaken on contextual admissions. The Universities Scotland report on widening access that has already been discussed, recommended a four-point plan with regard to admissions:

1. The need for greater transparency and use of a consistent set of terms and definitions expressed in 'plain English'. This is urgently needed because the language currently used is least likely to be understood by those these policies are designed to benefit, and the same terms are used to describe different practices in different institutions;

2. All universities should use a common set of contextual indicators as standard - including residence in a SIMD20 area or care experience - but would be free to use additional indicators that specifically addressed local or regional needs, particular applicant characteristics or specific subject requirements. This adoption of 'primary' and 'secondary' indicators is a welcome advance on the current pattern of institution-specific indicators (although most institutions choose from a restricted range of predictable indicators, so it is not clear how much difference the US proposal would make in practice). The respective importance that would be attached to 'primary' and 'secondary' indicators is also not clear;

3. Universities should specify, and publish, minimum entry requirements for all courses. Given the number of courses offered by Scottish universities this represents a formidable administrative challenge. US has steered clear of the idea of 'access thresholds' proposed in the CoWA report and preferred the more familiar 'minimum entry requirements'. The major determinant of minimum entry requirements would be the 'best evidence' on the entry standards needed for successful completion. This raises the issue of how 'successful' completion is defined; completion rates have varied over time, and also vary between institutions, subjects and courses;

4. Universities should be free, as they now are, to make exceptions by making offers below these minimum entry requirements. These would be given to applicants who had experienced 'extreme hardship' or 'significant disruption' to their education. US recommends that all applicants from a care experience background should receive guaranteed offers, and that work should begin to identify other groups entitled to similar special consideration.

A multi-volume report of large-scale research commissioned by the SFC, and undertaken by researchers at the University of Durham, has also recently been published (Boliver et al., 2017). The recommendations made in this report are similar to many of the recommendations made in the US report - for example, the need for more ambitious use of contextual admissions, for the use of more consistent indicators and the adoption of a common (and more comprehensible) nomenclature. But they are also more radical. For example, the authors recommend that the use to which indicators should be put should be made more transparent (so avoiding the 'black box' character of some current contextual admissions policies) and also that minimum entry requirements should be based on explicit probability rates of success. Two examples are offered - of the likely effects of an 80 per cent chance of progression from year one to two, and a 65 per cent chance of obtaining a first or two-one degree. Finally the report assesses which are the best indicators to use. It makes a useful distinction between indicators which carry minimal risk of incorrectly identifying an individual as disadvantaged when they are not (such as eligibility for free school meals), indicators that should be used with caution as they do carry such a risk (such as residence in a SIMD area) and indicators that should be avoided because consistent and robust data is difficult to obtain (such as parental occupation and education). However, the report focuses on the reliability of the indicators rather than their usefulness in indicating which groups face the greatest barriers to access.

The recommendations in the US report, if implemented, would represent a welcome advance. However, if contextual admissions are to remain the main weapon in the arsenal of (in particular, more selective) universities in their efforts to move towards fairer access, more radical action is required. Although it is important to improve the transparency and consistency of the terms used to describe contextual admission policies, as the Durham researchers make plain, it is even more important to improve the transparency and consistency of the admission processes themselves. Although it is an advance for applicants (and their parents and advisers) to understand more clearly which indicators will be taken into account in deciding eligibility for a reduced offer (or a 'minimum entry requirement' offer), there is still no clarity about how these indicators are used to inform how these offers are made - and, in particular, what level of entitlement they carry (a guaranteed place, an interview or merely - unspecified - consideration?).

Defining success

Another key issue, already flagged in the US report, is how is to define 'success'? It is natural that universities should adopt a cautious approach, especially at a time when non-completion (or delayed completion) is likely to lead to suggestions that public money is being wasted and when completion rates are a key indicator in league tables. It is also natural that Ministers should emphasise that fair access, to be real, must not be restricted to access to the first year but to a rewarding experience and successful outcome. But, if students from socioeconomic deprived backgrounds are to be expected to complete at almost the same rate, and achieve broadly similar degree outcomes as students from more advantaged backgrounds, this is likely to act as a significant brake on how far and how fast fair access can be achieved. There needs to be a grown-up debate about the right balance between providing opportunities and guaranteeing successful outcomes. An approach based on the probability of progression and successful degree outcomes is a good place to start. But two subsidiary issues are also raised:

  • What level of support - academic, pastoral or financial - is it reasonable to expect universities to provide to ensure that all students - and especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds - have a reasonable prospect of success? This may be a particular issue for universities with limited experience of addressing the needs of such students, although the same universities already have the largest deficits in terms of equitable access and offer their graduates disproportionate shares of human capital in terms of entry to elite social positions. They appear to have less difficulty in making the necessary adjustments, and offering the required support, in the case of international students. However, although student support is vital, it is important not to label students into 'standard' and 'non-standard' groups, which could have the effect of stigmatising students from more deprived backgrounds.
  • Should 'success' continue to be defined largely in terms of institutional self-perceptions and perhaps over-restrictive disciplinary requirements, and also official and unofficial performance indicators, or need more attention be paid to how it is defined and experienced by students? Students, of course, value good teaching and successful outcomes in terms of degree classifications. But they may also find institutional definitions of progression and completion over-rigid at times. There is a need for more flexible learner pathways, and also study patterns (which operate on 'student time' as well as 'institution time'), as efforts to improve articulation suggest. That need is likely to increase as new patterns of higher education, including degree apprenticeships, develop. It is also unhelpful to take as a benchmark existing patterns of progression and (successful) outcomes, rather than adopting a bolder, risk-based, approach as suggested in the Durham researchers' report to the SFC. Scotland, and the UK as a whole, has very low levels of wastage by international standards. Just as the wider use of contextual admissions raises important questions about how we define entry 'standards', so it should open up similar questions about how 'outcomes' are defined. That necessary debate should not be stifled by fears of being accused of 'dumbing down'.


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