The Report: Are contextual offers the path to greater social mobility in higher education?

The Office for Students wants more ambitious contextual offers to be used by university admission teams, but a recent HEPI survey revealed student opinion is divided on lower grade offers. How did we get here and what is the sector doing? James Higgins reports

The road to fair access

Universities are sometimes referred to as ‘providers’ – and it is a term that will no doubt crop up a few times before the end of this piece – but that word, and the transactional culture it infers upon universities, omits the huge importance higher education institutions (HEIs) have on social mobility; nowhere does societal inequality seem so noticeable – or so newsworthy.

A study from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) thinktank published in July 2019 estimated that by the time students leave secondary school the development gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged is about 18 months and the GCSE attainment gap between them has stopped closing. At the end of reception year, disadvantaged students’ development is four-and-a-half months behind their non-disadvantaged peers.

But it is not until students reach higher education that this picture of educational inequality sharpens. In 2003, the Labour government commissioned Brunel University vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz to lead a review of higher education admissions. The review’s steering group concluded there should be no bias in admissions but suggested that in the short-term “institutions apply holistic assessment to borderline applicants and applicants for over-subscribed courses” with a view to using contextual factors more in future admissions procedures.

Fast-forward to 2019, and the Office for Students (OfS) wants universities to be more ambitious with contextual offers. The regulator – which turned one year old earlier this year – wants higher tariff universities to eliminate the disparity between the number of students from disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged backgrounds by 2038/39. Across the sector, the OfS also wants the ratio of most- and least-represented students to drop from 5:1 to 3:1 by 2024/25.

These targets assume government policies remain constant. The OfS makes reference to the Augar review in an insight document from May, but with Jo Johnson back at the department for education (and given his disregard for the review’s findings), the future remains uncertain. In the meantime, what is the case for seeing academic achievement in a broad contextual way and should it be full steam ahead? What policies are universities following, and should a sector-wide approach be taken?

Jo Johnson, new universities minister, is no fan of the Augar review. Will his intervention prove decisive?

What is the point of seeing admissions in context?

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) released a survey it conducted with 2,000 full-time undergraduates in response to a call from the OfS for more research on students’ views of contextual offers. Nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed it is not only harder to achieve good exam results if you grow up in a disadvantaged area, but higher education admissions should take this context into account. The students, however, were less keen on lower grades offers; 47% were in favour, 45% were not. Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said the results meant “there is still considerable work to be done on winning over hearts and minds”. With the OfS keen to see “radical progress”, should divisions of opinion on lower grade offers cause pause for thought?

Chris Millward, OfS director for fair access and participation, does not think so. In an interview with UB, Millward said: “I think in the case of the most selective universities, inevitably, any offer is being made at the expense of another student, so those that don’t get in may feel disenchanted about that.

“That is one of the reasons why I support continued expansion of higher education, so universities can do this.

If we expand their overall intake we can make progress on access without necessarily having to do that at the expense of a group that is currently most represented in higher education.

“But ultimately we also need to make progress on equality to narrow the gap between different groups of students and I think, in order to do that, universities and people like me need to make the case publicly for why higher education admissions should be about merit and potential and why A-level grades are not a good reflection of that.”

At present, guidance suggests a contextual offer should be two A-level grades lower than a standard offer. Laura Bruce, head of programmes at the Sutton Trust, says the social mobility charity wants to build a bigger evidence base to further this ambition. “One of the biggest arguments we hear from universities is students won’t be able to cope academically with the programme. We’re building an evidence base to see what happens to students admitted with a contextual offer. Once we understand more, we will look at it again to see if the guidance on lower grade offers is ambitious enough. At the moment that two-grade boundary is where the evidence has led us.”

How should we view results in context?

The OfS has based its targets on Polar data, but the regulator advises admissions teams not rely solely on them. Ucas uses its multiple equality measure (MEM) figures to review admissions rates. MEM
includes sex, ethnicity, secondary school background and free school meals as markers of inequality. In areas such as Surrey, where there are pockets of deprivation amid areas of wealth, basing an estimation on Polar data alone falls short.

Bruce supports the increased use of this MEM data: “We advocate for more individual level datasets to be used, which allow universities to understand the individual circumstances a young person might be facing.

“One of the barriers to universities is availability of data. At the moment, the National Pupil Database, which holds information about free school meals, isn’t connected to Ucas applications, so universities cannot easily access family income information.”

Bruce says the Trust is exploring “if there a role” for the organisation to create a central student contextual database. She suggests the tool could resemble one currently used by some recruitment teams in the legal sector which calculates the percentage by which an applicant outperforms their peers at law school. A student from a disadvantaged background who outperforms their peers would be flagged as a high-flier. “It’s hard to make judgement calls on in what case three As is similar to three Bs, and there will certainly be instances where that is the case, but having a dataset that universities could access might increase faith in the system and make it less subjective.”

Universities have a varied approach to assessing candidates, but is there an argument for a standardised assessment of advantage and disadvantage? Bruce says: “I think, in theory, it could be quite good. I think it would be quite difficult to implement with universities wanting to remain autonomous.”

Millward disagrees with a sector-wide definition. “We have an autonomous sector so I’m generally cautious about saying there should be standardisation. Rather, I’d be looking for and encouraging universities to demonstrate greater clarity and transparency to students.”

Chris Millward, director for fair access at OfS, says universities must build support for lower grade offers

What are universities doing?

This year, UCL is launching Access UCL, a brand-new contextual offers scheme which is expected to offer places to 250 students (about 10% of total intake).

For some years, the university has been a partner in Realising Opportunities which includes 15 other research-intensive universities like Warwick, York, Exeter and Sheffield. The national scheme offers support for post-18 study, including additional consideration for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, alternative offers of up to two A-level grades lower, and careers information.

Katy Redfern, UCL’s deputy director of access and admissions, says even before the Access UCL scheme was introduced, the university had been making progress, but admitted “in terms of underrepresented students at UCL, there is no single measure that identifies underrepresentation in higher education” which can make it hard to quantify. Since 2013/14, the university has increased its intake of black students from 3.6% to 7.1%, but, Redfern says, “we recognise that we need to make more progress in increasing our Polar intake, which has remained consistent over the past five years at around 3.9%”. The Access UCL scheme is targeted to bolster this.

The new scheme requires students complete a four-hour online academic study module which prepares them for the demands of higher education. It also stipulates the completion of an up to 1,000-word assessment. Access UCL, unlike many other schemes, notifies a student at the outset of their application whether they qualify for the scheme which helps to lessen the burden on students from disadvantaged students to seek out support.

The University of Bristol is tracking students who have received contextual offers and comparing them to the wider student body in order to measure the impact of the scheme

The University of Bristol first introduced contextual offers in 2009/10, but it wasn’t until last year that they widened the scheme to all students from low-participation neighbourhoods and introduced offers of two grades below the advertised requirements. Bristol’s scheme also automatically flags qualifying student applications. Last year, this led to a jump in intake from Polar 1 and 2 backgrounds from 13.8% to 16.7%.

The university is tracking students who have received contextual offers and comparing them to the wider student body in order to measure the impact of the scheme. Lucy Collins, director of home recruitment and conversion, says the university is working hard “to communicate what it means to receive a contextual offer to applications, parents and teachers”.

The University of Surrey is one of the few higher-tariff universities that does not use contextual offers. It does, however, run a successful In2Surrey scheme. To join, students must fulfil two of the widening participation criteria which include whether a student grew up in a Polar 1 or 2 postcode or a household headed by someone in a non-professional occupation. It also includes BME and disabled students, and those that received free school meals.

Alice McLaren, head of widening participation and outreach, says: “At the moment, we know that our In2Surrey scheme is successful and we know that students who come in on it report a greater sense of belonging and settle in quicker, but more importantly, last year, they progressed at a percentage point higher than the institutional average. For that reason, we didn’t kind of go further into looking at contextual admissions because of what the scheme does already.”

The scheme can modify its entry requirements by one A-level grade but, in some cases, courses have protected grade criteria. Engineering, for example, demands an A grade in maths. Spaces on the scheme and modified entry requirements are only awarded once a candidate has chosen to accept the offer. But, McLaren says, only 20–30% of those accepted to Surrey via the scheme require that modified offer – the rest achieve or exceed the requirements.

Foundation years are a widespread and popular contextual offer tool.

The OfS has highlighted their usefulness, citing high continuation rates, but the Augar review recommended removing funding for these schemes. Millward worries about making radical changes in this area. He says: “I am seeing lots of good examples of how foundation courses are bridging provision and are really making a difference in terms of improving access to universities. So I would be very cautious about any blanket removal of access for public finance.

“I do think that there is a set of assurances that we might be looking for in relation to the need for foundation years, its effectiveness and value for students and the public purse, but once that has been assured I think it can play an important role in widening access.”


Motivation is building, not least because the OfS is driving the issue up the agenda. But these schemes rely on money and a cut to higher education funding might imperil their future. It is hard to not feel positive about the future given the optimistic targets set by OfS and the new schemes universities are using. MEM data – which reveals intersectional inequality – is a useful tool for universities to use, but providers set their own definition and scheme which may not reflect these complex inequalities. If we are to truly achieve fair access, the sector must access more data to ensure admissions truly see every applicant as an individual.

You might also like: Student body divided on contextual offers – HEPI survey

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