A guide to university contextual admissions policies
“Contextual admissions” is currently something of a hot topic in higher education. But what do staff in schools and colleges need to know about contextual admissions, and what should you be doing to support your students?
I tend to always explain the process of contextual admissions to teachers in the same way – I encourage teachers to think about what a contextual admissions process doesn’t look like and then it hopefully becomes clear what a contextual admissions process does look like.
Admissions - traditional versus contextual
In a completely traditional and non-contextual admissions process, admissions judgements are based on quite a narrow range of different factors. Universities will of course place a big emphasis on grades (whether achieved or predicted), but they may also consider the quality of the personal statement, reference and in some cases performance in an interview too. Extenuating circumstances could be factored in, for example if an applicant has been dealing with illness or bereavement.
In a contextual admissions process, these traditional factors will still come in to play, however further factors are also taken in to consideration so that a university may make more holistic judgements about their applicants.
Why are contextual admissions policies necessary?
Whilst the use of contextual admissions policies has increased considerably in the last few years, the concept of contextual admissions is not a new one. Researchers have known for a long time that there are a wide range of factors other than school attainment which affect the likelihood of success once a student arrives at university. For example, research published almost 20 years ago found that students from private schools were likely to do slightly less well at university when compared to students with the same grades from state schools.1 If universities only look at grades, there is a risk that some potential might be missed.
Which factors might be considered to be 'contextual'?
Universities enjoy autonomy when it comes to their admissions policies and there are no government mandates which mean that contextual admissions have to be done in a particular way. One consequence of this is that every university’s admissions policy is a bit different and different universities might consider different factors to be contextual. One useful summary of the factors which might be involved in a contextual admissions process is provided by the Sutton Trust whose ‘Admissions in Context’ report2 groups possible contextual factors in to four main categories:
> Individual-level factors: this could include things such as whether the applicant is in care, is a carer, has a disability, is a refugee, asylum seeker or estranged student.
> Area level factors: universities often make use of an applicant’s postcode to understand something about the average circumstances of those living in the area. Tools such as ‘ACORN’ might be used to estimate the level of socio-economic disadvantage in the area whilst ‘POLAR’ is a common tool which looks at rates of higher education participation in the area (for more on this refer to my earlier blog on POLAR). The 'SIMD' classification is also very commonly used in Scotland.
> School/college level factors: in looking at the particular school or college that the applicant attends (or has attended) universities might be interested in average levels of attainment, rates of progression to higher education and the socio-economic circumstances of the school.
> Participation in an outreach programme: All of our leading university partners engage in outreach work, and in many cases students who engage substantially with outreach initiatives have their applications flagged as contextual.
I cannot stress enough that whilst this is a list of possible factors (and not necessarily exhaustive) which may be considered as contextual, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular university has a contextual admissions policy then this must mean that all of these factors are taken in to consideration. But let’s suppose next that, for one of the reasons above, a student you are supporting submits an application which one of their universities flags as ‘contextual’. What happens next?
How do universities treat contextual applications?
If a particular application is flagged as contextual, there are many different ways in which this application may be treated differently when compared to applications which have not been flagged. The most well-known possibility is that the university makes the applicant an A level grade offer which is lower than that which would normally be made. Grade reductions can vary, and a reduction of one or two grades is perhaps the most common. Having said this, in the most generous cases a grade reduction of up to four grades below the standard offer is possible.3
Less is often known about some of the other adjustments which are made to contextual applicants, but these other adjustments can include being prioritised for interview, tuition fee discounts or prioritisation for a ‘near miss’ acceptance at the confirmation stage when exam results come out.
How can you support your students through the process?
Make sure your students are aware of the contextual admissions process and have an appreciation of whether they are likely to be flagged as a contextual applicant. The Advancing Access contextual admissions guide is an extremely useful resource which enables you and your students to view the contextual admissions policies at our partner universities at a glance. There are other online resources which your students might find useful too, such as the POLAR postcode checker which will help them to understand rates of higher education participation in the area they live in (something often factored in to contextual admissions policies).
Students should always be making at least one aspirational UCAS choice (in terms of how entry requirements compare to their predicted grades). If a student you are working with might be likely to be made a lower grade offer than usual, can they afford perhaps to be even more aspirational than they first thought? You also shouldn’t worry about encouraging a student to take advantage of a lower contextual offer, even if this means they will be studying alongside classmates who have met higher entry requirements. Recent research has found that students are not being “set up to fail” by being admitted with lower grades and that it is perfectly possible to reduce entry requirements without jeopardising a student’s chances of success at degree level.4
Another way to support students is to encourage them to take part in university outreach programmes whenever possible. It’s never too early for students to start looking in to what may be available in their area (even in Year 11). Whilst outreach participants may be rewarded with a lower contextual offer at the point of application, they should remember that their participation may only trigger a contextual flag at the particular university which has offered the outreach programme.
Finally, for more support on contextual admissions, why not request Advancing Access to deliver a free CPD session in your school or college, during which we can offer support on how you can support your students through the admissions process.
* This article is based loosely on a similar shorter article by the same author previously published on Unitasterdays.com
1. Smith, J. and Naylor, R. (2001) Determinants of degree performance in UK universities: a statistical analysis of the 1993 student cohort, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 63(1), 29-60, DOI: 10.1111/1468-0084.00208
2. The Sutton Trust (2017) Admissions in Context, Available at https://www.suttontrust.com/research-paper/admissions-in-context/
3. See for example ‘Warwick Scholars’ https://warwick.ac.uk/study/outreach/whatweoffer/warwickscholars
4. Boliver, V., Gorard, S. and Siddiqui, N. (2019) Using contextual data to widen access to higher education. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13603108.2019.1678076
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