FEA recommendations on the use of contextualised admissions data by universities

We are at a point where we need to move beyond the debate of if we should use contextualised data in admissions to widen participation to elite universities; instead we should be focusing on how to do it more efficiently and effectively.

Today we launch a Fair Education Alliance report (based on research from the University of Exeter) with calls to action on how we can improve the effectiveness of use of contextual data in admissions to higher education.

Please click here to view our report, and you can click here to view the full Exeter report.

The CEO of the Fair Education Alliance Sam Butters says “We want to see change in widening participation within the most selective universities. 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.” 

Through this research we demonstrate how contextual data is used in practice at highly selective universities. In doing so, we share best practice across the sector; and make recommendations on how we can better ensure institutions have access to and use contextual data in ways that will make education in the UK fairer. The report’s findings include:

•    Many universities have undertaken new approaches to the admissions process, through ‘contextualisation’ in admissions processes; where data is matched to applicants to assess an applicant’s prior attainment and potential to succeed in higher education in the context of the circumstances in which their attainment has been obtained.
•    The use of contextualised data in admissions has become increasingly more accepted over the last five years and the practice more widespread.
•    Although now widely accepted, contextualising admissions are applied in a wealth of ways across HEI’s; and it is often unclear to applicants exactly which practices are undertaken.
•    Currently a wide range of approaches are adopted by institutions to determine how ‘disadvantage’ is defined; with issues of inconsistencies across the UK and a problem of missing data.
•    Most critically the variety of contextual data sources and measures used is making it difficult for potential applicants and their advisers to assess where and how their chances might be enhanced, and the benefit of encouraging more applicants from non-traditional backgrounds is lost.

In response to the findings, we propose several recommendations. These include:

•    Public buy-in and Office for Students (OfS) support for the practice
•    Improved access to relevant data for institutions
•    Accountability for institutions on relevant data measures
•    Increased transparency for applicants
•    Greater consistency around principles and terminology
•    Shared commitment to measuring impact on student outcomes

HE stakeholder commented:

“If you go back ten years plus, institutions were using [it] in very pioneering ways, and there were lightning bolts of criticism about the impact it might be having on standards and on potential applicants from more advantaged backgrounds. As contextualised data has been accepted and become more established, the debate has changed to how to do it more efficiently and effectively.” 

Notes to editors: 

For media enquiries during office hours, please contact Yasemin Aykut via email on yaykut@teachfirst.org.uk
For media enquiries out of office hours, please contact Sam Butters via phone on 0776 682 7319

About the Fair Education Alliance:

The Fair Education Alliance was launched in June 2014 and is a coalition of 103 of the UK’s leading organisations from business, education and the third sector. The aim of the FEA is to work towards ending the persistent achievement gap between young people; from the most disadvantaged children to their more advantaged peers. The FEA believes that England must meet five impact goals to be achieved by 2022.

These impact goals are:

1.    Narrow the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary school
2.    Narrow the gap in GCSE attainment at secondary school
3.    Ensure young people develop key strengths; including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations
4.    Narrow the gap in the proportion of young people in education, employment or training; one year after compulsory education
5.    Close the gap in university graduation, including from the 25 percent most selective universities.