The analysis finds that the 24 universities in the Russell Group use 18 different factors in their use of contextual admissions.

Elite universities need to do much more work to simplify admissions and address major misperceptions among for applicants, new analysis concludes

Research highlights “huge complexity” in use of contextual admissions among Russell Group universities. Current university students meanwhile are likely to vastly over-estimate the proportion of student intakes who come from private schools.

The analysis comes ahead of this year’s A-level results where the race for places at highly selective universities is set to intensify, making it even more difficult to recruit students from poorer backgrounds.

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, said: “Universities need to up their game in communicating that they are welcome places for students from all backgrounds, debunking unhelpful myths, and making their admissions processes as clear and simple as possible.

“Much more work is needed to demystify these institutions for applicants who may be put off applying because they think they may not fit in, or are not aware of the contextualised admissions they may benefit from. In the post-pandemic era of admissions, universities will have to work even harder to attract talent from all backgrounds.”

The findings, presented in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute, come from analysis, produced by Kieran Tompkins, a 2021 Business and Management graduate at the University of Exeter and overseen by Professor Elliot Major.

The analysis finds that the 24 universities in the Russell Group use 18 different factors in their use of contextual admissions. No two universities used the same combination of information about applicants to make decisions. Data about the individual and their families, about the area they live in and about their school were all commonly used by admissions officers.

Contextualised offers occur when a university takes into consideration an applicant’s personal circumstances by for example reducing the A-Level grades a student requires from a disadvantaged area.

The authors suggest universities could benefit from greater use of individual-indicators, in particular eligibility for free school meals. Universities are currently having to rely on ‘proxy’ postcode measures that are not as effective at identifying low-income students.

Professor Elliot Major said: “It must be baffling for outside applicants who may qualify for these schemes. Greater consistency and transparency are needed across universities so that students are clear on what is on offer.”

The research also found widespread misperceptions among Russell Group students that private school students make up the majority of students. In reality this is not the case at any university.

The analysis included a survey of 118 current university students at Russell Group universities. The students were asked to gauge the average proportion of state and private school students at Russell Group universities. The average response estimated that state school students make up 46 per cent of intakes at Russell Group universities. This is a significant underestimate of the actual proportion which is 77.4 per cent of intakes. A total of 78 per cent of the survey respondents attended state schools. 

Professor Elliot Major said: “Inflated A-level grades this year will produce unprecedented numbers of pupils with the grades required for even the most demanding degree courses. This analysis suggests we need to do much more to make elite universities truly transparent and inclusive institutions.”

Date: 9 August 2021

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