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.