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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.

MarciaDevlin


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Making admissions better in Australia

By Marcia Devlin

In Australia, the federal government has been focused on improving the transparency of higher education admissions. I’ve been concerned and written about this matter for some years, particularly the confusion in prospective students and their families around exclusive admissions criteria being used as a proxy for quality.

The government-appointed Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) were asked to consider and report on how the admissions policies and processes of higher education providers could be made clearer, easier to access and more useful, to inform the choices and decisions of prospective students and their families.

In the context of an increased variety of pathways through which a prospective student can apply or be accepted into higher education in Australia, the HESP found that prospective students, their families and others, including schools, are finding it increasingly difficult to understand the full range of study options and opportunities available, and to understand how they can best take advantage of these options to meet their education and career objectives.

The HESP made 14 recommendations Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Applications to UK universities: digging beyond the headlines…

By Ian McNay

‘Record numbers apply to enter higher education’ was the good news reported at the end of the first application period in January by most papers – I have not seen one to query this, but I have not checked them all. The March figures are now out, almost unreported, and confirm what was true in January: applications are up on last year, by just over 2 per cent. The increase for the UK is lower than that, at about 1.6 per cent.

That is good, but the claim of a record depends what you count and compare with. The secondary headline was that this record showed that high fee levels had had no impact, implying that the record applied where fees had been raised. Not true. Continue reading


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News values

Ian Mc Nay

Ian McNay

My interest [obsession?] with the way the press report HE issues has had several items to feed it recently. I had a spat, unpublished, with John Morgan of Times Higher Education over an article on 27 March on student number allocations by HEFCE headlined ‘No bonanza for those who left places unfilled’. The story opened with the assertion that ‘the big post-92s suffer’, having  proved [sic] ‘less popular’, and the third paragraph lists four of them.

Then comes the table giving percentage reductions, where those with the biggest reductions are not post-92s, but Leeds, Bath and Surrey. The article comes to them in the fourth column, with a claim that their reduction was probably ‘strategic’. As a researcher, I looked for evidence of the different reasons behind reductions. There was none, since ‘figures were issued on a “no approach” embargo’ where no questions could be asked of institution staff. So, opinion, based on speculation, based on stereotypical bias, is presented as news reportage.

The reporting of research demonstrating the [not new] findings that state school entrants outperform those from private schools with the same entry qualifications, mentioned the recommendation to consider adjusting offers, and produced the usual protective outcry on the web page. Nobody reported the evidence from UCAS stats that grades are adjusted by Russell Group universities, where applicants from privileged backgrounds are more likely to get an offer than those with similar qualifications from less advantaged backgrounds.

Finally in this rant is the question: ‘what is newsworthy?’ In recent weeks, the Centre for Leadership and Enterprise at Greenwich has offered commissioned programmes for staff in the Nigerian Ministry of Education, including the permanent secretary, covering issues of policy on teacher development and deployment, vocational provision, standards, and school governance; and for senior staff from Ukraine – both sides of the country and the language divide – on leadership as a new Higher Education Law is developed.

I thought these together were newsworthy: a small centre working with staff from countries with challenging contexts and offering good news to balance the bad. I was wrong apparently. Judged by the University as not worth a press release or even a mention in the University’s daily coverage on its web pages.

There is, apparently, a ‘London effect’: had we been in Lincoln, or Teesside, or even at the university’s Medway campus, it would have been worth trying to get something in to the local press. London journalists are more blasé and world-weary, it appears, so nothing appeared. But at least you now know about it. I am due in Kyiv in October; if I get taken hostage, will that count as news?

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.


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Ethnicity trumps school background as a predictor of admission to elite UK universities

Kurien Parel

Kurien Parel

Vikki Boliver

Vikki Boliver

By Kurien Parel and Vikki Boliver 

Last year an article in the Guardian newspaper described significant disparities in the success rates of white and non-white applicants to the University of Oxford, even among students who received top grades at A-level.  The article, by Kurien Parel and James Ball, reported that, in 2010-11, offer rates were around 1.5 times higher for white applicants than for ethnic minority applicants with the same grades, and up to twice as high in relation to Oxford’s two most oversubscribed subjects, Medicine, and Economics and Management. This pattern was found to hold even for students with 3+ A* grades at A-level.

Of course, A-level performance is not the only criterion for admission to Oxford or other Russell Group universities. Indeed, admissions decisions are often made before A-level results are known, on the basis of predicted A-level grades, prior grades achieved at AS-level and GCSE, references, personal statements, and other criteria. Moreover, certain degree subjects have certain A-level subject prerequisites.

Nevertheless, the figures reported in the Guardian appear to contradict claims made on behalf of Oxford University that ethnic differences in offer rates are due to ethnic disparities in academic attainment at schools as reflected in A-level grades coupled with the fact ethnic minorities apply disproportionately to more competitive subjects such as Medicine.

Some have speculated that ethnic minority applicants to Oxford have lower offer rates because they are more likely to have attended non-selective state schools. Such schools are thought to be less adept at helping applicants prepare for university-administered tests and admissions interviews than state grammar schools and private fee-paying schools.

Expand below to read the full article [office src=”https://onedrive.live.com/embed?cid=7995236C4982A000&resid=7995236C4982A000%21107&authkey=AC-mkjMzal6mUDI&em=2&wdStartOn=1″%5D

MarciaDevlin


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Using students’ admissions rank should be highly qualified

By Marcia Devlin

The Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank or ATAR, a numerical, relative ranking derived from senior high school performance, is a source of angst for many Australian school leavers hoping to become university students. Many assume, understandably but incorrectly, that the higher the ATAR needed to get into a course of study, the ‘better’ the quality of the course. There is no independent evidence to support this assumption.

However, there is evidence that just under half of the university places offered in Australia this year were made to students who do not have an ATAR. Almost fifty percent of new university students in Australia are mature age, international, vocationally qualified or will have come to university through a myriad of alternative entry schemes. None of these students have the magic number that automatically makes the course ‘better’ quality. It makes one begin to wonder about the point of the ATAR. Continue reading