The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Admissions tutors’ perspectives on widening access to selective STEM degrees

by Eliel Cohen, Camille Kandiko Howson and Julianne Viola

This blog follows a project supported by the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund, involving interviews with admissions tutors and staff in department-based admissions decisions in STEM fields at Imperial College London, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the three most selective higher education institutions in England. A project report for the full study is available here

Admissions decisions at more selective universities are often made ‘locally’, that is by disciplinary-based academics who will likely be directly involved in teaching students. Given such autonomy, we join Steven Jones, Dave Hall and Joanna Bragg in foregrounding localised admissions practices as key sites of study for understanding widening participation practices and outcomes. In March and April 2020 we conducted eight interviews with individuals holding admissions tutor (or similar) roles in STEM courses at three elite English universities (the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London).

This post summarises key findings, emphasising that admissions tutors’ perceptions, priorities and practices are often disjointed and disconnected from wider institutional and national policies, grounded in a conservative ethos which slows down the widening of access to selective STEM degrees.

There is fairness and there is ‘fairness’

Fairness was a key theme in our interviews, with all but one participant using the word ‘fair’ or ‘fairness’ explicitly when discussing the key principles of admissions. However, ‘fairness’ tended to have two main meanings which not only differed from but could actively contradict each other. Marginson discusses these contrasting notions of fairness in access to higher education in terms of the competing philosophical traditions to which they relate, drawing on the likes of John Rawls and Amartya Sen. Our findings more closely match the more procedure-focused tradition that Marginson identifies as ‘equity as fairness’, as opposed to the more outcomes focused tradition of ‘equity as inclusion’.

The first and dominant view referred to equal treatment of applicants. This procedural meaning of fairness is not an end in itself but more a means towards ensuring that other admissions priorities were achieved consistently and transparently. First among these was identifying and admitting those applicants with the greatest ‘potential’. We found strong evidence of what has elsewhere been referred to as the potential-based perspective amongst our participants, who consistently used words like ‘high-potential’, ‘high-ability’, or simply ‘the best’ to describe the kinds of students they prioritised and targeted in admissions.

This notion of fairness as a characteristic of procedures which will unproblematically reveal the ‘best’ applicants not only differs from, but can undermine the secondary notion of fairness, one grounded in social justice – in other words, fairness in terms of greater equality of outcomes regardless of one’s background. Some of our participants exhibited at least implicit awareness that there was a potential contradiction between these two notions of fairness, since it is often difficult to see the potential in applicants from less advantaged backgrounds.

On the whole, participants did not see widening participation as a top priority, feeling that there were limits to the extent to which they should be using their role and finite resources to address social inequalities.

Disconnect between admissions policy and practice

The widening participation agenda of the past two decades, and especially the more recent focus on contextualised admissions, implies a shift in admissions practices. Perhaps most obviously it suggests an approach which no longer simply prioritises and privileges those students with easily demonstrable ‘potential’ but rather assesses all applicants’ attainments and abilities in light of the very different contexts in which they have been brought up and educated.

However, what became clear in our interviews was that admissions tutors’ actions and decisions are rarely grounded in the widening participation goals announced by governing bodies and institutional Access and Participation Plans (APP). Rather, in most cases they fell back on what seemed appropriate to their own local context. This resulted in practices which, although sometimes innovative and effective, were disjointed and disconnected from broader widening participation policies and sometimes even counter to them.

For example, some participants said that they might prioritise applicants based on their gender, nationality (but not ethnicity) or age in order to improve the perceived ‘balance’ in their localised cohort, despite no official policies asking them to do so. Other participants felt that any consideration of gender (and protected characteristics more generally) was inappropriate and potentially unlawful.

While we are sympathetic about an interest in a balanced cohort, our findings highlight that admissions decisions are sometimes made on the basis of localised and idiosyncratic perceptions and priorities rather than institutional or national policy. It is not clear, for example, whether a marginal offer would be more likely made to an applicant whose background contributed to perceived ‘cohort balance’ or to an applicant from a widening participation background.

Risk-aversion and the need for data and evaluation

Although all participants expressed support for widening participation in general, they were generally risk-averse in terms of how far they felt widening participation should go. For example, most of our participants were actively or even strongly against lowering grade offers for widening participation students. This view was justified in various ways, for example in terms of concerns about the need to maintain standards of the students and the curriculum, the perceived ‘extra support’ that students admitted on such a basis may require, and the concern that such students would be more likely to perform poorly or drop out. These views were despite an absence of evidence that students admitted on a contextual basis performed worse than other students. This risk-aversion or conservative ethos seems to be a common response to localised admissions decision making.

However, some of our participants acknowledged that one thing preventing them from being able to overcome this risk-aversion was a lack of data monitoring the performance of widening participation students, ideally broken down to the level of students admitted partially on the basis of widening participation and contextual information. Anecdotally, we have reason to believe that this would show that more could be done to widen access, including the increase of lower contextualised offers, without it affecting standards. If nothing else, these data could support evaluation of outcomes of specific admissions practices.

Admissions in England in 2020 were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever new models or workarounds may emerge in the future, evidence suggests that there will continue to be a role for relatively autonomous admissions tutors in selective institutions. Our findings suggest that the sector needs to reflect on how to account for the institutionally situated perceptions and behaviours of admissions tutors if it is going to continue its widening access objectives in the future.

SRHE member Dr Eliel Cohen is a sociologist of education and a research associate at Imperial College London. His forthcoming book with Routledge investigates whether universities in the twenty-first century are thriving or just surviving through an analysis of academic boundaries and boundary-crossing activities.  

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko HowsonisAssociate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research & Scholarship (CHERS) at Imperial College London. She is an international expert in higher education research with a focus on student engagement; student outcomes and learning gain; quality, performance and accountability; and gender and prestige in academic work.

Dr Julianne Viola is a social scientist specialising in young people’s civic identity development, efficacy, and engagement with their communities. Her book, Young People’s Civic Identity in the Digital Age (Palgrave 2020) focuses on experiences of young people living in the USA at a unique time in the nation’s history, and calls for the reinvigoration of civic education for the digital age. Julianne earned her doctorate at the University of Oxford and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London.

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The SRHE Student Access and Experience Network

by Manny Madriaga

On the 28th February 2020, SRHE launched the new Student Access and Experience Network. The network merged two formerly separate networks to encompass the entire continuum of student participation in higher education from access to experience and success, providing an insight into academic, social as well as welfare aspects. (The launch event occurred on one of those non-strike days for those of us engaged in the UK’s UCU industrial action.) It also occurred as the Covid19 pandemic was beginning to emerge as a factor in the UK  life – the day before the launch, the UK government’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, indicated that the country could face at least a couple of months of disruption. At the time of writing, just over 40 days has passed since the launch event, and much has changed in all our lives. It definitely has affected our work, our relationships with each other, and our connections to our students. This has triggered us to open up a space to discuss many of the issues that we have recently confronted in the sector due to Covid19.  Particular questions have arisen as to whether university responses to the pandemic will reduce or exacerbate structural inequalities for students in accessing and engaging in HE. For instance, Dai O’Brien has described in a previous SRHE blogpost that teaching and working remotely during this time can be virtually inaccessible.          

The launch event highlighted key issues around the whole student lifecycle. The event began with questions around access and the history of university outreach programmes with Dr Julian Crockford’s presentation, ‘Tensions, Contradictions and Perpetual Loose Ends – ‘Widening Participation’ in HE Policy (audio and slides)’, outlining contentions around theory and practice in targeting interventions to specific groups of students. The seminar then extended conversations with Dr Camille Kandiko-Howson’s paper, ‘From Cinderella to Queen Bee: Student Experience Research (audio and slides)’, highlighting issues of student participation and success and the role of higher education institutions within that. Finally, the event provided an opportunity to explore inequalities in graduate outcomes with Professor Nicola Ingram and Dr Kim Allen sharing their recent work (audio and slides). 

From these stimulating presentations, questions and discussion emerged from the diverse audience of widening participation practitioners, researchers, and graduate students. In these conversations, we engaged with evidence of how higher education not only transforms students in positive, meaningful ways, but also significantly marginalises many. As a new network, we have set out to explore these processes of marginalisation and structural inequalities that affect the access and experiences of students in HE. The HE sector is rarely value-neutral and meritocratic. Instead, universities, and other higher education contexts, are highly contentious spaces, structured by class, gender, and race, among other things. Notions of the ‘traditional’ student obscure the varied pathways into higher education as well as the intersectional nature of students’ identities, including special needs backgrounds, experiences of care and estrangement, and age. It is worth mentioning here that Dr Kandiko-Howson rightly argued in her presentation that we should not be talking about the ‘student experience’ as something monolithic. We should be talking about student experiences. This is similar to the point made by Karen Gravett in her SRHE blogpost in challenging the dominant narrative of students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’ in their university transitions.   

The beauty of all three presentations at the SRHE SAEN launch event is the offer of conceptual tools to challenge dominant discourses in widening participation, student experience, and graduate employability.  Dr Crockford, for instance, shared his own experience of working in widening participation, shining a light on the data issues in monitoring and evaluating university access. Reflecting upon her own experience as convenor of SRHE’s Student Experience Network, Dr Kandiko-Howson held up and reminded attendees of the seven principles of good undergraduate teaching practice of Chickering and Gamson (1987). Being reminded of these principles parallels our own ambitions as a network in countering much of the deficit-oriented perceptions of students on issues of access, retention, and academic performance. Professor Ingram and Dr Allen introduced their ‘social magic conversion table’ to demonstrate how employers may sift and exclude certain groups of university graduates to construct their ‘ideal’ graduate hire.    

Although we come equipped with new knowledge and have made new connections with others across the sector, we do have anxieties and more questions about the state of higher education and our students during the time of global upheaval. The launch was one of the last events we actually attended in person. We are all working remotely and attempting to connect to our students with our online lectures. We are aware we are not the only ones. Thus, we are asking you to contribute to crowd-sourcing an array of the following to inform research, practice and policy in the area of widening access, student experience and progression in the light of Covid-19. Our goal is to bring together diverse perspectives, ensure all voices are heard, and start building a repository of ideas and solutions in response to current circumstances. 

Please add to the following Google document:  

Based on the resultant log of initiatives we are hoping to bring together researchers and practitioners in moderated discussions in the coming months to inform policy and practice.

Dr Manny Madriaga is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University. He is a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Student Access and Experience Network.

Paul Temple

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Policy amnesia? – sorry, remind me again…

By Paul Temple

Burton Clark, considering ‘The Problem of Complexity in Modern Higher Education’ (reprinted in On Higher Education, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), says: “With each passing decade a modern or modernizing system of higher education is expected … to do more for other portions of society … from strengthening the economy … to developing individual talents and personalities and aiding the pursuit of happiness … This steady accretion of realistic expectations cannot be stopped, let alone reversed” (p386). But – and although one naturally hesitates to disagree with Clark on anything – perhaps not all “the system’s bundle of tasks” have to be accepted without asking some hard questions.

One of these tasks is considered by Lee Elliot Major and Pallavi Amitava Banerjee in HEPI’s Policy Note 20 (December 2019), which presents their thoughts on access to what they variously call “elite” and “highly-selective” universities in England. They describe how independent schools have got this more or less sewn up: over 60% of A-Level students at independent schools go to “highly-selective” universities, compared with 22% from state schools. (About 7% of English school students are in the independent sector.) Their proposed measures to deal with this undoubted social justice challenge require what Clark, in the section noted above, put nicely as the meshing of individual desires and institutional capabilities. So they argue that universities need to use contextual admission policies more effectively; they need to apply differential “standard” and “minimum” entry requirements to applicants from different backgrounds; they may need to apply random allocation policies; and more.

All of these policy ideas probably have much to be said for them. My problem with the whole approach, though, is that it lets central government direction of the English school system over recent years completely off the hook. Instead, we are asked to accept another accretion to expectations of universities, another task to add to the bundle, demanding that they address a problem created in – at least, certainly not solved by – another area of governmental responsibility.

What was once a locally planned and accountable system of “maintained” schools (of different types) is now a patchwork of academy chains and their schools; so-called free schools; and maintained schools (of different types) overseen by local authorities. Academies and free schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum, but maintained schools do. It’s a complete organisational dog’s breakfast, but, as with all the best government policies, it allows ministers to blame others for its failings by distributing responsibilities but not powers. Central government policies since 2010 (with, yes, Michael Gove in the frame as Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014, though previous Labour governments are not without blame here) were supposed to liberate school leaderships through these structural changes, thereby driving up standards. Most academic observers of the school system and the teaching in it never thought that structural changes would do this, but naturally government didn’t listen to them.

So here we now are, at the beginning of another period of Conservative rule, with the privileged independent school sector, with its spending per pupil about three times that of state schools (many of which are anyway in financial difficulties after years of falling budgets), naturally dominating access to elite universities. We must not now succumb to policy amnesia: the Conservative-led 2010 government and its Conservative successors destroyed the locally-accountable school system because of (we must assume) their hostility to local authorities as alternative sources of legitimacy. So, a decade later, the shiny new structure is producing no better results (to put it at its most generous) than what went before: “freeing” schools from local accountability wasn’t the problem, and so couldn’t be the answer.

But the Elliot Major and Banerjee proposals give ministers a handy escape route. They can say: “You see, even professors working in universities say they’re not doing enough to help disadvantaged young people: that’s where the problem lies, not in schools. I demand immediate action to end this scandal!”

When UUK – well-known for its bold statements on politically sensitive topics – next meets ministers to discuss access to higher education, my suggestion is that the UUK team adopt an air of baffled concern. “Minister, I’m afraid you’ll have to help us here: surely young people taking A-Levels now, having had all the benefits of the school system your predecessors designed, must be achieving far more than under the old system. So we don’t quite understand why you think universities now need to do more to accept people from disadvantaged backgrounds, when their schools will have done all the levelling-up that’s needed. Are we missing something, Minister?”

As civil servants say, I hope that’s helpful, UUK.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at

Penny Jane Burke

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Access and widening participation in higher education

By Penny-Jane Burke

Questions of access and widening participation continue to pose significant challenges for policy-makers and practitioners in higher education with enduring and persistent inequalities at play.  Research has a central role to play in shaping the future directions of equity policy and practice, creating innovative methodologies and providing detailed and nuanced analysis to examine and unearth the root causes of ongoing inequalities. Research has traced the ways that inequalities are exacerbated by the multiple uncertainties and complexities characterising contemporary higher education, with profound changes being shaped by externally imposed and interconnecting political forces including globalisation, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, corporatisation, neo-patriarchy and neocolonialism.

In this contemporary context of higher education, there is increasing pressure for universities to position themselves as ‘world-class’, to aggressively compete in a highly stratified field driven by discourses of ‘excellence’ and to address the expectations of an all embracing league table culture striking at the very heart of university research and teaching. The ways that ‘excellence’ is placed in tension with ‘equity’ is unspoken and both ‘excellence’ and ‘equity’ are reduced to measurable outputs. Against this hyper-competitive and hierarchical landscape, concerns about widening participation, equity and social justice have been narrowed to aspirations of employability, efficiency and competency, with a strong emphasis on business and economic imperatives and logics. Continue reading