srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


Leave a comment

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.

Marcia Devlin


2 Comments

Supporting disadvantaged students is more expensive than you think

By Marcia Devlin

A national election looms in Australia and while no-one is under any illusion about the likelihood of higher education being a key issue for the Australian public when they are considering for whom to vote, those in the sector are hopeful that, at the very least, higher education policy common sense will prevail. Depending on your particular higher education interests, the focus of such policy common sense will differ. For me, at least partly, the focus will be on equity policy.

I recently led to completion a national study that looked in part at the costs of supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in Australian universities. We used a mixed methods approach, incorporating quantitative analysis of national higher education data and qualitative exploration and validation.

The complexity of university finances, the opaque nature of equity funding and the generally low level of understanding of the precise costs of supporting low SES students in the sector provided challenges to meeting the project brief. That said, we used data from 37 universities over ten years and a sophisticated quantitative methodology and detailed consultation with senior executives at four universities on the quantitative findings to test their validity. The results were, as one Vice-Chancellor described them, “stunning”.

We found that the average costs of supporting low SES undergraduate students are around six times higher than the costs of supporting medium and high SES students. This was for a university with an average number of undergraduate low SES enrolments. At the postgraduate level, the average support costs for low SES students are around four times higher than those for medium and high SES students for a university with an average number of postgraduate low SES students.

These are, indeed, stunning findings.

We found that the kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.

We found that the additional cost incurred in supporting a low SES student compared to other students include those inherent on the support listed above and additionally, the costs inherent in the interventions required to address disadvantage throughout school and university.  We found that the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities, also contributed to the cost differentials.

In simple terms, we found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.

Because low SES students are not a homogeneous group, we found that additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. As will be unsurprising to those working with equity group students, depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage. In the four universities consulted, there were different costs in, and different approaches to, supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses, whether the student was undergraduate or postgraduate and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

There are a number of policy implications that an incoming Australian government might like to consider:

  • Given universities that are enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions, moving from activity-based to mission-directed costing may be a fruitful area for further exploration.
  • Given that the costs of supporting low SES students are four to six times higher than those of supporting medium and high SES students, consideration could be given to applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’ in university funding for low SES numbers. In rudimentary terms, this would mean that each low SES student would attract four times (postgraduate level) to six times (undergraduate level) more funding than otherwise like students.
  • Given the lack of homogeneity of low SES students and the differential costs for different universities in supporting low SES students, consideration could be given to the distribution of funding to support low SES students according to the investment/cost need of a university/campus/area in which a campus is located, rather than according to the number of students at each university who meet the technical definition of ‘low SES’. This would also help reduce perverse incentives to seek only the least costly low SES candidates.

I’m not overly optimistic about these findings being immediately embraced and celebrated by either side of politics. I am hopeful, however, that a government genuinely interested in equity might recognise that properly funding universities to enact their missions might be purposefully conceived as an investment that lowers social disadvantage and ultimately improve economic outcomes for both graduates and communities. In other words, I’m hoping policy common sense will prevail.

SRHE Fellow Professor Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Senior Vice-President at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. The study referred to above was funded by the Australian government through the National Priorities Pool

Image of Rob Cuthbert


2 Comments

What’s wrong with the debate about widening participation and fair access?

By Rob Cuthbert

The invaluable Higher Education Policy Institute breakfast seminar series at the House of Commons continued on 27 February 2019 with speakers Chris Millward of the Office for Students, Alan Rusbridger (Oxford) and NUS President Shakira Martin asking the question: ‘Widening participation and fair access: is it time to reset the debate?’. The answer: yes it is, but the seminar didn’t.

This seminar could have happened at any time in the last 20 years, and probably did: obsession with Oxbridge admissions, with a nod to the severe but lesser difficulties of the (rest of the) Russell Group; a lament about social mobility being at a standstill; a deficit model of disadvantaged applicants still being used to excuse lack of progress; and a plea for greater use of contextualised admissions. There was a hint of menace in Millward’s reference to the much greater and more nuanced regulatory powers available to the OfS, reinforced as Rusbridger referred to Oxford’s changes – such as they were – being driven only by greater transparency and the fear of closer regulation. Shakira Martin gave an excellent tub-thumping speech but didn’t go beyond a general exhortation to dismantle the system and build a new one.

There were positive steps. Millward, having noted – with a tinge of regret? – that OfS powers did not extend to admissions, was good on reconstruing ‘merit’ as ability to benefit, rather than level of prior qualifications, citing Princeton’s recent example in tripling its proportion of student intake from disadvantaged backgrounds from 7% to 21%. He also properly emphasised the need for a package of support pre- and post-application: “getting in and getting on”, to which later comments added “getting out” – ie not letting employers escape their share of responsibility. But he pointed out that on present trends fair access would take 50 years to be realised, and Martin asked how many people would suffer in the meantime.

We are doing no more than inching in the right direction. The elephant in the room was the higher education ‘market’, taken for granted so much that it had become invisible as part of the problem. The whole debate was implicitly framed in a market environment. The last Labour government, the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition and now the Conservative government developed a tripartisan agreement that HE should be treated as a market, in the profoundly mistaken belief that marketisation is the best way to ensure accountability and, as HE ministers always say, ‘to drive up standards’. This is a no-win game for universities, because government thinks that having more students getting better degrees is evidence not of rising standards but of grade inflation. And it’s a no-lose game for government: the marketisation policy survives despite the evidence that the HE market allowed in some for-profit operators who induce students with loans to transfer large sums of public money to them, in return for educational programmes of dubious quality.

In present circumstances the widening participation debate starts with the taken-for-granted assumption that universities and colleges are atomistic individual players in competition. However, institutions should not be allowed to do what, perhaps in desperation, they might think best in the competitive market – unconditional offers, closing unpopular science or language courses, or whatever. Government knows better and wants them to do things differently, even as it nods through the collateral damage of a policy-driven catastrophic fall in the numbers of mature and part-time students, and contemplates with equanimity the closure of entire universities – not the ‘top’ universities attended by ministers and civil servants, obviously, just the ones most likely to be serving disadvantaged communities. In addition, government knows better than students what is in students’ best interests, so the policy obsession is with admissions to Oxbridge and the Russell Group, to which of course all students would apply if only they knew what was best for them.

Hence the WP debate continues to be treated as a matter of institution-by-institution target-setting, public embarrassment, regulation, and occasional punishment of the deviants (only the lower-status deviants, obviously), in a way which implicitly and strongly reinforces higher education’s reputational hierarchy. We have travelled a long way from David Watson’s wise celebration of the UK’s ‘controlled reputational range’ and his reminder that ‘a rising tide floats all boats’ in widening participation.

Diagnoses are plentiful, but where might we find a solution? The first step is to remember that there is more to a widening participation philosophy than self-styled ‘top’ universities’ could dream of. Government could and should do much more to celebrate and reward the ‘other’ HE institutions – those which go on providing good or excellent HE for the great majority of students (over 80% of students do not attend Russell Group universities), but which may not appear in the top 20 of any university league table. And if that is too much to ask, then widening participation initiatives, at least, should raise their heads above institutional level. WP practitioners know that collaboration is the key to success.

Aimhigher, a national WP initiative based on collaboration, was killed in 2010 by the then new HE Minister David Willetts, having already been marked for execution by the outgoing Labour government. This was because, as HEPI’s Nick Hillman, Willetts’ special adviser, has said, there was not enough evidence (from the Treasury’s point of view) to save it rather than others from the axe. In subsequent years the collaboration was slowly reconstructed, as far as it could be, by WP stalwarts swimming against the rising tide of market forces in the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. The £50million annual cost of Aimhigher is by now outstripped by a much larger sum being spent much less efficiently on bursaries and predominantly institution-focused outreach activities. Rusbridger reminded us that Oxford’s £14million spend over 2009-2016 had benefited just 126 students, characterised by one seminar participant as spending ‘to keep things exactly as they are’.

How can we reset the debate on widening participation and fair access? We will not do it by encouraging another surge in the market tide. OfS’s widely-admired Chris Millward is doing his best to square the circle, with guidance issued on 28 February 2019 for institutions on their access and participation plans, but the overall programme is inevitably still enslaved by the ambitions and fears of excessively market-conscious institutions. We need to expand ringfenced funding and empower the people who spend it, for fair access initiatives which benefit institutions beyond their own – or, importantly, bring benefits to others but not at all to their own institution. (Yes, Russell Group, that means you.) Initiatives must be rooted in the institutions but promote higher education in general, and should rely for their success on improved participation from truly disadvantaged groups – not those often wrongly flagged as disadvantaged by POLAR data. We need to support more institution-based activity which is not institution-focused. We need to help potential students find courses and institutions which are best for them, not courses in the ‘best’ institutions which their qualifications allow them to consider. Contextualised admissions make good sense in terms of reconstruing merit and ability to succeed, but institutions need to discover that for themselves, and discover how they need to change to accommodate different kinds of merit. Regulation will not change minds in the way that the experience and contribution of a more diverse student body will.

Just as we should be professional, but not mistake academics for a profession, be businesslike, but not mistake the university for a business, we should compete for students, but not mistake higher education for a market. Government and the Office for Students should encourage institutions to collaborate for fair access, and not mistake collaboration for a cabal. The OfS could then focus its attention on any ‘top’ university that is so insecure or selfish about its standing that it fails to collaborate in such collectively-funded fair access initiatives. Most institutions, allowed to be true to the values that motivate most of their staff and students, will do more for fair access than the Office for Students could ever impose.

SRHE Fellow Rob Cuthbert is emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management and a former Deputy VC. He chaired Aimhigher South West, which had an integrated  region-wide programme of WP activity involving all of the South West’s 13 HEIs, 40 FE colleges, state secondary schools, regional agencies and the TUC. He edits SRHE News and the SRHE Blog and is interim chair of the SRHE Publications Committee

Penny Jane Burke


Leave a comment

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