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Contextual Admissions

What are contextual admissions?

Contextual admissions processes enable higher education (HE) providers to take account of factors that may have affected applicants’ educational journeys prior to applying to HE when assessing an individual’s application and making an offer. Contextual admissions are defined by Moore, et al (2013) as:

the use of contextual information (meaning information provided through the application) and contextual data (meaning data matched to applicants, including through outreach) 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

How are they used?

According to UCAS (2016) the use of contextual admissions is becoming increasingly wide-spread, based on evidence that certain indicators, such as school performance, provide a more nuanced understanding of likely student success than academic achievement alone. For example, Lasselle et al (2014) developed a binary indicator of school performance based on whether the proportion of students in a school gaining at least four A grades in their Highers is above or below the national average. Based on this measure, the authors show that, within a certain range of achievement, otherwise identical students coming from below average schools typically perform better at university than those from above average schools.

Contextual admissions processes take a number of forms, including:

– Targeting attention on groups of educationally-disadvantaged applicants and prioritising consideration of those applicants who meet standard entry criteria.

– Identifying applicants who may be made a differentiated or lower offer in the grade range for a particular degree programme based on their circumstances (e.g. socio-economic background, school attended).

– Flagging applicants against a range of indicators, and/or applicants who meet more than one criterion and re-assessing those who miss their target grades in order to allow them to gain entry to HE with grades below the standard entry level at the confirmation stage.

– The development of algorithms which draw on evidence of past performance to make adjustments to applicants’ ‘raw’ grade scores on application to reflect expectations about how applicants with different scores from different groups may perform at the institution.

– The use of interviews or testing to assess contextual applicants’ potential.

According to Boliver et al. (2017) the contextual indicators most commonly used in Scotland, singly or in combination include:

– Individual-level indicators: care leaver or carer, first in family to go to university, refugee or asylum seeker status and adverse personal circumstances resulting in significant educational disruption.

– Area-level indicators: being resident in an area of socio-economic disadvantage measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD20/40); being resident in an area characterised as ‘Financially Stretched’ or facing ‘Urban Adversity’ according to the ACORN classification; and being resident in an area with a low young higher education participation rate (POLAR quintiles 1 and 2).

– School-level indicators: attendance at a school with a low rate of progression to HE, attendance at a school targeted for widening access initiatives, and attendance at a school with a low average level of academic achievement.

– Successful completion of an intensive widening participation programme: programmes including SWAP access programmes (for mature students) and intensive widening participation programmes or a summer school, typically involving a significant time commitment and a series of formal assessments.

Mountford-Zimdars et al. (2016) conclude that contextual admissions go some way to addressing the widening access challenge. They are particularly effective when integrated within a wider programme of support, including application support, and outreach interventions, which may result in additional credits for those who have engaged with more intensive outreach programmes, such as summer schools that are designed to better prepare students for learning, particularly in research-intensive institutions.

Much of the academic research on contextual admissions focuses on the feasibility of various measures, based on a variety of data sources that are most likely to produce accurate and fair ways in which to contextualise offers. It is important that HE providers are transparent about their rationale for using contextual information, recognising that the rationale may differ depending on the under-represented group being targeted. It is also important to be transparent about the data used in specific contexts and the evidence base a provider draws upon to inform their decisions. These measures are an important defence against the charge that contextual admissions are a form of ‘social engineering’ that discriminates against applicants from more advantaged backgrounds (Zimdars, et al (2016).

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions’ (SPA) Scottish National Expert Think Tank has produced specific advice for providers in the Scottish context considering contextual admissions to inform the development of their implementation plans. Resources include lists of variables that may be employed in specific contexts including pre-enrolment, attainment data and outcomes measures that can be tracked through data-flagging throughout the student lifecycle.

Use of summer schools as part of contextual admissions

A number of universities in Scotland offer summer schools as part of an adjusted offer of entry. The University of Glasgow offers qualifying students the chance to apply for a place on a four-week summer school. This is targeted primarily at widening participation applicants to the University, who receive an offer that is conditional on the successful completion of the summer school. The summer school thus provides an alternative access route and is a key part of contextualised admissions. As well as attending compulsory and subject-specific academic sessions, students also experience university life in a similar way to ‘taster’ summer schools. In 2017, 436 students commenced the UoG Summer School, with 412 (94.5%) completing. A total of 366 students passed with the required grades and 266 progressed to UoG (with a further 64 progressing to an alternative university). Summer School participants have been found to have slightly better levels of continuation and progression compared to the overall widening participation group (Brown, 2017).

The University of Dundee  Access Summer Schools have run annually since 1993 and often form part of a conditional offer. They are only open to high contextual score candidates who can take up their undergraduate places if they achieve the required standard. The Access Summer School runs from early June to late July and includes evening and weekend self-study. It is free of charge, and all eligible students are awarded a bursary for the duration of the Access Summer School. Free self-catering accommodation is also available for those who live more than 40 miles away. The Access Summer School involves a Personal Academic Skills course, four taught introductory subject modules, advice from a dedicated team of experts, and experience of student life and the available facilities. As well as facilitating access to university, tracking of Access Summer School participants shows they have better retention rates compared to matched peers.

Some applicants require less support and are offered an Online Summer School alternative qualification and preparation route undertaken completely online. Applicants complete one or two subject modules and a university transferable skills course over the same June and July period. Each student is assigned their own online personal tutor to work with throughout the course, and students who have completed the course the previous year act as mentors.

Further information and references

UCAS (2018):  Practical fact-sheet for institutions who wish to use contextual data.

University of Dundee Access Summer School

University of Dundee Online Summer School

Boliver, V., Gorard, S., Powell, M. and Moreira, T (2017). Mapping and evaluating the use of contextual data in undergraduate admissions in Scotland. An Impact for Access project funded by the Scottish Funding Council.

Browitt, A. (2017). Summer School Research: Impact on Student Retention and Success. University of Glasgow – internal report, November 2017.

Lasselle, L., McDougal-Bagnall, J. and Smith, I. (2014). ‘School grades, school context and university degree performance: evidence from an elite Scottish institution’. Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 40(3): pp.293 – 314.

Moore, J., Mountford-Zimdars, A. and Wiggans, J. (2013). Contextual admissions: examining the evidence. Research into the evidence base for the use of contextual information and data in the admissions of UK students to undergraduate courses in the UK. Cheltenham: Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA).

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Moore, J. and Graham, J. (2016). Is contextualised admission the answer to the access challenge? Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, Vol. 20(4): pp.143-150.

Commissioner for Fair Access (June 2017), Discussion Paper on Contextual Admissions.