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Calls for students’ backgrounds to be part of university entry alongside grades

Calls have been made to improve equality of opportunity for university entry by making it “about background, and not just exams”.

Chris Millward – the director of fair access and participation of the Office for Students watchdog – has stated that the current application system is flawed, arguing that A-level grades are only a “robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved” and that in higher education “we are a long way from equality of opportunity”.

Many universities have application processes such as all Russell Group universities offering “contextual admissions” to address such inequalities.

Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, has said that these other factors include “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.”

Despite this, it has not addressed widespread concerns of universities accepting too few disadvantaged candidates.

We know that parents’ income, the quality of school attended, and a myriad of other background factors affect educational outcomes for young people

– Sam Butters

In a report, the Fair Education Alliance (FEA) have argued for increased transparency of the application process to better understand how the background of an application is considered, which can include family income, area of residency, and the school the applicant attended.

The report, which looked at data of 2016 applicants from research conducted by the University of Exeter, discovered how few entrances were from ‘low participation neighbourhoods’. Only three per cent of The University of Cambridge’s entrants were from these areas, for Bristol 3.7 per cent, Oxford 4.6 per cent and Exeter 5.3 per cent.

It also recommended asking for more contextual data on UCAS application forms, publishing annual reports on student admission and entrances, as well as better defining the forms of disadvantages taken into consideration.

Sam Butters, the FEA chief, said that “we know that parents’ income, the quality of school attended, and a myriad of other background factors affect educational outcomes for young people” and called for reforms to the approach of contextualised admission to more effectively erase such barriers.

Chris Millward expanded on this, pointing out that as universities control their own admission processes the fair access director can only encourage and not enforce new measurements to make applications more accessible.

For Mr Millward, “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”.

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