Evaluating the use of contextual data in undergraduate admissions

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Sociology

Abstract

Universities are increasingly using 'contextual data' to help them identify prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to succeed in higher education. At present, however, it is not clear which kinds of contextual data best capture the socioeconomic circumstances of individuals or what the consequences of particular contextual admissions policies might be for widening participation and student achievement. This project sets out to meet an urgent need for evidence-based guidance on the effective use of contextual data in university admissions.

The research questions are:

1) Which contextual indicators (such as measures of poverty or learning challenges), singly and in combination, best capture the socioeconomic circumstances of individuals? How strongly associated are the individual-level, neighbourhood-level, and school-level contextual indicators typically available to universities, and how well do these indicators cover for more verified measures of individual socioeconomic circumstances that are typically unavailable to universities (such as parental education or occupation)?

2) How well do different contextual indicators, singly and in combination, predict success at university degree level, for comparatively disadvantaged students? Which contextual indicators identify students who are (a) likely to outperform comparably qualified peers from more advantaged environments and who may therefore warrant lower offers (e.g. AAB instead of AAA at A-level)? (b) can be expected to perform as well as comparably qualified peers from more advantaged environments and may therefore warrant prioritisation for standard offers? (c) are likely to perform well in absolute but not relative terms and may therefore require additional support to realise their full potential? How does this vary by degree subject area and academic entry requirements, and what sector wide patterns can be identified?

3) How much of an impact can contextual admissions policies be expected to have on the goal of widening participation in higher education? What would be the likely effects of implementing different contextual admissions models on the social composition of the student body, for particular degree subject areas, for courses with different academic entry requirements, and across the sector as a whole? Which particular indicators, used in which particular ways, would enable universities to make the most progress towards the widening participation targets set out in their Access Agreements without compromising student achievement?

The research will make use of three major secondary data sources - the National Pupil Database, the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, and student records data held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency - to establish the ways in which universities could use contextual data to widen participation in higher education whilst maintaining high standards of student achievement.

Planned Impact

The intended beneficiaries of this research are:

1. Individual universities currently using or wishing to use contextual data to inform admissions decisions. As a result of the project universities will have access to robust evidence regarding the validity and reliability of different contextual variables and clear recommendations regarding the implications of different ways of implementing contextual admissions policies for widening participation and student achievement.

2. Government departments including the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; non-governmental bodies including the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS); and university mission groups including Universities UK (UUK), the Russell Group, Million+, University Alliance and GuildHE. These agencies will have a stronger scientific basis for investing in the provision of high quality contextual data and for advocating best practice in relation to its use as part of their role in assisting universities to promote a more inclusive student body.

3. Prospective students from less advantaged socioeconomic contexts with potential to succeed in higher education. Members of these groups will benefit from more effective contextual admissions policies designed to increase their rates of participation and achievement in higher education, including in the most selective institutions.

The relevance and importance of the work is evidenced by the commitment of key user organisations OFFA, Universities UK, Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, and The Sutton Trust to help shape the work, and assist with the development and dissemination of recommendations for good practice in the use of contextual data in undergraduate admissions. (Please see the attached letters of support and pathways to impact document for details.)
 
Description The research funded through this grant has succeeded in demonstrating the value of a contextualised approach to undergraduate admissions as a tool for significantly widening access to higher education in the UK and especially to the most academically selective universities. The main findings of this project are as follows:

- persistent socioeconomic disparities in achievement at age 16 and age 18 mean that contextualised admissions are needed in order to make progress on widening access
- academic entry requirements could be reduced substantially for socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants without setting them up to fail at university
- socioeconomically disadvantaged university applicants should be identified using administratively verified individual level indicators (such as received free school meals) rather than school-based or area-level measures to minimise the risk of identifying some people as contextually disadvantaged when they are not and/or some people as not contextually disadvantaged when they are
- information on socioeconomic background available in the National Pupil Database could be used with a high degree of confidence to apply, monitor and evaluate contextual admissions practices
Exploitation Route Our findings are highly relevant to the guidance on widening participation and fair admissions offered to UK universities by the Office for Students. They are also relevant to university representative bodies (Universities UK, the Russell Group, Million+, etc.) and individual universities looking to maximise the robustness and effectiveness of their contextual admissions policies. We are in contact with these organisations and will continue to disseminate our research findings as extensively as possible.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description The findings of this research project have been highly influential. They have encourage the much wider take-up of a contextualised approach to undergraduate admissions in the UK, including greater use of reduced academic entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants. Our demonstration of the value of a contextualised approach to admissions has led to it being championed by the Office for Students as an effective means of widening participation and promoting fair access. We have also fed into debates about appropriate indicators of contextual disadvantage and hope to see this materialise in a shift towards the use of individual-level verifiable indicators in the short-to-medium term. In the medium to long term we expect to be able to evidence the impact of our research via statistics showing that UK universities, especially the most academically selective ones, have become more socioeconomically diverse as a result of taking a more contextualised approach to admission.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Invited contributor to roundtable discussion to help shape work of the Office for Students
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Impact Invited contributor to roundtable discussion to help shape work of the Office for Students
 
Description Invited member of Scottish Commission on Widening Access Toolkit for Access development group
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Invited member of Scottish Commission on Widening Access Toolkit for Access development group
 
Description Invited member of Scottish Government Access Delivery Group
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Overseeing policy changes designed to promote widening participation in higher education in Scotland.
 
Description Times Higher report cites research on fairness in university admissions
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
URL https://www.timeshighereducation.com/digital-editions/9-june-2016-digital-edition
 
Description WonkHE citation of research on fairness in university admissions
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
URL http://wonkhe.com/blogs/data-university-admissions-bias/
 
Description Written Evidence, Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee - Widening access to Higher Education
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
 
Description Investigating the use of contextual data by Sutton Trust 30 universities
Amount £25,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Sutton Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 05/2017
 
Description Secondary Data Analysis Initiative
Amount £160,000 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/P002579/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 08/2018
 
Description Successful approaches to improving education for disadvantaged students (ESRC Festival of Social Science event)
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Funding ID GA 9646696 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2018 
End 11/2018
 
Description Invited to meet with Chris Millward, Director of Fair Access for the Office for Students 
Organisation Office for Students
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Beginnings on an ongoing relationship with the Office for Statistics, with whom we intend to share research findings and recommendations in due course.
Collaborator Contribution Meeting scheduled for April 2018
Impact None to date - ongoing.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Invited to meet with Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO of Russell Group 
Organisation Russell Group
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Meeting scheduled for April 2018 to discuss findings of ongoing research on fair admissions and contextual admissions.
Collaborator Contribution Ongoing.
Impact None to date - ongoing.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Member of Scottish Framework for Fair Access Delivery Group (CoWA) 
Organisation Government of Scotland
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Regular meetings to advise on development of Scottish Fair Access Toolkit and associated Community of Practice
Collaborator Contribution Regular meetings to advise on development of Scottish Fair Access Toolkit and associated Community of Practice
Impact Ongoing
Start Year 2017
 
Description Member of the Scottish Government higher education Access Delivery Group 
Organisation Government of Scotland
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Invited member of the Access Delivery Group which coordinates delivery of the recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access. The Group is chaired by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science in Scotland and brings together all those with a responsibility for delivery of the recommendations, those leading delivery projects and other key stakeholders.
Collaborator Contribution See above.
Impact Ongoing.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Planned collaboration with UCAS 
Organisation Universities and Colleges Admissions Service
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The PI (Boliver) has been invited by UCAS to do some collaborative research using UCAS data to explore further questions of fair access to UK universities.
Collaborator Contribution The plan is to co-analyse data with UCAS and with colleagues at LMH Oxford University and to co-publish a research report.
Impact None to date but a co-authored research report is anticipated in 2020.
Start Year 2019
 
Description A radical approach to widening participation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Plenary speaker at event organised by HEPI Brightside, London
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description BERA conference presentation Gorard, S., Siddiqui, N. and Boliver, V. (2018) Which indicators are most appropriate to use for contextualised admissions to university? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact BERA conference presentation
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Conference presentation at Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) annual conference. Paper title: 'Who counts as a widening participation student?' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Conference presentation at Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) annual conference. Paper title: 'Who counts as a widening participation student?' August 2017, University of Jyväskylä, Finland (Presenter: Vikki Boliver)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://ktl.jyu.fi/en/cher2017
 
Description Conference presentation at Social Policy Association annual conference. Paper title: 'Which indicators are most appropriate to use for contexualised admissions to university?' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Conference presentation at Social Policy Association annual conference. Paper title: 'Which indicators are most appropriate to use for contexualised admissions to university?' 10-12 July 2017, Durham University. (Presenter: Stephen Gorard)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.dur.ac.uk/sociology/2017-spa-conference/
 
Description Conference presentation at Social Policy Association annual conference. Paper title: 'Who counts as a widening participation student?' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Conference presentation at Social Policy Association annual conference. Paper title: 'Who counts as a widening participation student?' , 10-12 July 2017, Durham University. (Presenter: Vikki Boliver)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.dur.ac.uk/sociology/2017-spa-conference/
 
Description ESRC Festival of Social Science Event: Let's Make Education Fairer. 10th November 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact ESRC Festival of Social Science Event: Let's Make Education Fairer.
Event open to the general public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dkV8uNenbU
 
Description Gorard, S., Siddiqui, N. and Boliver, V. (2018) Which indicators are most appropriate to use for contextualised admissions to university?, ECER Annual Conference, Bolzano, September 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Gorard, S., Siddiqui, N. and Boliver, V. (2018) Which indicators are most appropriate to use for contextualised admissions to university?, ECER Annual Conference, Bolzano, September 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited debate panel member at Reform event Diversifying the Elite: The Role of Universities 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited debate panel member at Diversifying the Elite: The Role of Universities, 26 January 2018, Reform, London. (Presenter: Vikki Boliver)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL http://www.reform.uk/event/diversifying-the-elite-the-responsibility-of-universities/
 
Description Invited debate panel member at The Bridge Group conference, 'Bridging the Gaps' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited debate panel member at The Bridge Group conference, 'Bridging the Gaps', 17 May 2017, KPMG, London. (Presenter: Vikki Boliver)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://thebridgegroup.org.uk/event/bridging-the-gaps-conference/
 
Description Invited panel member at HEPI Breakfast Seminar in partnership with Brightside: 'Where next for widening participation and fair access?' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited panel member at HEPI Breakfast Seminar in partnership with Brightside: 'Where next for widening participation and fair access?', 12th October 2017, London (Presenter: Stephen Gorard)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.hepi.ac.uk/2017/10/12/next-widening-participation-fair-access-hepi-breakfast-seminar-part...
 
Description Invited presentation at WZB Berlin Social Science Centre, 9-10 November 2017 (Presenter: Vikki Boliver) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Invited presentation entitled 'Admission to UK universities is not meritocratic - but here's how it could be' given at the Higher Education and (In)Equality of Opportunity interdisciplinary workshop, WZB Berlin Social Science Centre, 9-10 November 2017 (Presenter: Vikki Boliver)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://sites.google.com/site/ciderworkshop1/home
 
Description Invited presenter on panel at annual CGHE conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Invited speaker on panel discussion on topic of Higher Education and Inequality at CGHE Annual conference in London. Attended by 400+ delegates and live-streamed (uploaded to youtube http://www.ucl.ac.uk/live/cghe-2018-annual-conference-the-new-geopolitics-of-higher-education). I spoke about the value of contextual admissions as a means of demonstrating the false nature of the dichotomy between equity and excellence in access to higher education.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.researchcghe.org/events/2018-04-11-cghe-2018-annual-conference-the-new-geopolitics-of-hig...
 
Description Invited talk at Researching the Micro and Local in Widening Participation Practice seminar series, Sheffield University. Paper title: 'Does the use of contextual data help or hinder widening participation?' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Invited talk at Researching the Micro and Local in Widening Participation Practice seminar series, Sheffield University. Paper title: 'Does the use of contextual data help or hinder widening participation?', 24 Feb 2016 (Presenter: Stephen Gorard)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Invited talk at Sheffield Student 2013 project findings launch 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited talk at Sheffield Student 2013 project findings launch.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjPFrE25ju0
 
Description Keynote address at the 2016 annual conference of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Keynote presentation entitled 'How can we widen participation in higher education? The promise of contextualised admissions' at the annual conference of the European Consortium of Higher Education Researchers at Cambridge University (September 2016). Attended by hundreds of higher education researchers from around the world. This keynote will be published as part of a conference proceedings book.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.cher2016.org/pg50_Vikki_Boliver
 
Description Keynote speaker at SRHE Annual Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Vikki Boliver, invited keynote speaker at SRHE
Conference Programme: http://www.srhe.ac.uk/conference2018/speakers.asp
Keynote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACE9rDOP98k
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACE9rDOP98k
 
Description Seminar presentation at School of Education, Durham University. Paper title: 'Who counts as a widening participation student?' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Seminar presentation at School of Education, Durham University. Paper title: 'Who counts as a widening participation student?' 6 December 2017 (Presenters: Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Siddiqui, N., Gorard. S and Boliver, V. (2018) The jigsaw of two linked data sets: Who is missing from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (Next Steps) and National Pupil Database (NPD), and implications for longitudinal studies, BSA Annual Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Siddiqui, N., Gorard. S and Boliver, V. (2018) The jigsaw of two linked data sets: Who is missing from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (Next Steps) and National Pupil Database (NPD), and implications for longitudinal studies, BSA Annual Conference
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description • Panel member alongside Alan Milburn MP at a public debate on "Exploring social mobility solutions: will we ever achieve equality of opportunity in higher education and the professions within the current system?" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Panel member alongside Alan Milburn MP at a public debate on "Exploring social mobility solutions: will we ever achieve equality of opportunity in higher education and the professions within the current system?" hosted in London by the Social Mobility Commission and the Higher Education Policy Institute (December 2016). Afterwards I was invited to write a piece on 'A more radical approach to contextualised admissions' for a forthcoming HEPI publication.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.hepi.ac.uk/2016/12/13/bridge-group-christmas-reception-hosted-partnership-hepituesday-13-...