Admissions staff told to focus on duration of deprivation
Universities should consider the length of time a student has faced disadvantage during their upbringing when assessing their applications, according to researchers.
Academics at Durham University said that there was a large gap in attainment between school-leavers who had suffered from deprivation for long periods and those who had only been affected temporarily – potentially at the point at which they submit their application.
The five researchers – Stephen Gorard, Vikki Boliver, Nadia Siddiqui, Beng Huat See and Rebecca Morris – based their analysis on an assessment of 28 factors used to consider the applications of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, identified from 120,000 existing research reports.
Many of these are often adopted by universities who make use of “contextualised” admissions because the data are readily available, not because they are the most robust measures that could be used, the Durham study says.
One of the most commonly used indicators, the neighbourhood characteristics of where an applicant lives, was not particularly useful, the researchers concluded, since many disadvantaged pupils live in comparatively affluent areas.
There are also problems with the use of school type as a factor, as it is not clear whether it is the most recent school or the school that a pupil attended for longest that is most relevant, the researchers say. They highlight potential gaming of the system – for example, when private school students transfer to state- funded sixth forms.
“Individual, rather than modal, characteristics are much more accurate,” Professor Gorard told Times Higher Education.
Some individual characteristics can have drawbacks too, though, the researchers say. Whether someone is an immigrant is considered by some universities, but this might include an English-speaking student from a professional family moving from the US to the UK, they say.
Likewise, students who have English as a second language may struggle on arrival in the UK but, if they have been in the school system for an extended period, typically outperform their peers in exams.
The researchers argue that universities should take into account other indicators, such as for how many years they have been eligible for free school meals and whether they care for others.
Dr Gorard said that the real problem with widening access in the UK was that, by the time students reach the stage of applying to university, many pupils have fallen too far behind during their schooling to be able to enter higher education.
“Contextualised admissions can’t fix this, but they can make a huge difference. The problem is that they are not fully working as they are now,” he said.
The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was due to be presented at an event in Durham titled Let’s Make Education Fairer on 10 November, part of the ESRC’s annual Festival of Social Science.