The new higher education watchdog, the Office for Students (OfS), is urging universities to pay more attention to socio-economic and school background, rather than just A-level grades, when deciding to award a place to a student.
It wants institutions to be more ambitious on what are known as “contextual admissions”, offering places to students who have the potential to study at the highest level, but may be at a disadvantage because of background and school.
Most universities already use contextual data in their admissions process as part of efforts to widen access to their courses, but while lower- and middle-tier universities have made advances, leading institutions have been criticised for their “incredibly slow” progress on recruiting from the most disadvantaged groups.
The OfS intervention increases the pressure – particularly on the most selective institutions – to significantly improve equality of opportunity in higher education and to do it quickly.
It comes as a new report calls on universities to be more more transparent about the information on students they take into account when deciding who should be offered places to study.
The Fair Education Alliance (FEA) study, based on research from the University of Exeter, says institutions should be required to publicise the contextual data they use in admissions by including it on the UCAS application page for each course.
Millward said he didn’t believe that the current inequality of access reflected a lack of potential. “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.”
Sam Butters, FEA chief executive, said: “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 of universities, said all its member institutions already 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.”