Universities should look at A-level grades alongside background information about potential students when making offers, to give all young people fair access to higher education, according to a watchdog.
Chris Millward, the Office for Students’ director for fair access, is suggesting institutions should be “ambitious” in their approach to using “contextual admissions”.
The call comes as a new report urges universities to be more transparent about the information on students they take into account when deciding who should be offered places.
The report, published by the Fair Education Alliance (FEA), says that institutions should be required to publicise the contextual data they use in admissions, for example by putting it on the UCAS application page for each course.
At the report launch on Tuesday, Mr Millward will say: “An ambitious approach to contextual admissions must be central to our strategy if we are going to make progress on access at the scale and pace necessary to meet the expectations of government, students and the wider public.
“A-level grades can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved.
“I do not believe that the inequality of access we see currently can reflect a lack of potential, and promoting equality of opportunity must be concerned with unlocking potential for students from all backgrounds.”
Mr Millward will also say: “We are a long way from equality of opportunity in relation to access to higher education.
“So in the coming years, I will be expecting universities and colleges to set more ambitious targets in their access and participation plans to narrow the gaps.
“This will include measures to increase the pool of applicants with the high levels of attainment needed to enter many universities.
“But if we wait the years this will take to achieve, we will fail the next generation of students.”
Contextual admissions is the practice of using extra information, besides predicted grades or qualifications, on areas such as where a potential student lives, where they went to school and their socio-economic background, to assess a student’s achievement and suitability for a degree course.
Many UK universities use some form of contextual data.
The FEA report, which focuses mainly on highly selective universities, says: “While contextualisation has become more accepted, it is applied in a wealth of ways across higher education institutions (HEIs) and it is often unclear (particularly for applicants) exactly which practices are undertaken.
“We believe this is impeding the spread of good practice, and is creating an unacceptable position for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds whereby it is likely they will be considered a ‘contextual’ applicant at some HEIs, and not at others, and will have no way of knowing which universities will take their background into account.”
It concludes: “The OfS should require HEIs to publicise the types of data they use in their contextual admissions processes in locations that will be accessed as a matter of course by applicants, eg stated on the UCAS application page for each individual course.”
Other recommendations include a call for universities to be given more, and better, information on students’ background and for institutions to publish details of their annual student intakes.
FEA chief Sam Butters said: “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.”
Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, which represents 24 selective universities, said: “All Russell Group universities use contextual data to identify talented students, regardless of their background.
“Qualifications and predicted grades are a key indicator of academic ability, but universities take a range of other factors into account to understand the applicant’s achievements in context.
“This includes the school or college attended, where a student grew up, whether they are a care leaver, or whether they are the first in their family to enter higher education.
“The FEA is spot on in its call for more accurate data to be made available, particularly around deprivation.”
Chris Hale, director of policy at Universities UK, said: “Many universities have always used contextual information to help identify an applicant’s potential, which cannot always be determined from entry grades alone.
“Our advisory group on social mobility also recommended that universities should continue to consider a range of factors alongside applicants’ entry grades.
“Universities need a range of ways to identify disadvantage. At the moment, universities can look at relevant data from a number of sources, but there can be inconsistency in what is used. Improved data would inform their approach to contextualised admissions.”