Top universities should look beyond exam results and lower entry grades for poorer students, the higher education watchdog has said.
The Office for Students (OfS) has urged institutions to be “more ambitious” in how they judge merit when admitting students and to take more account of the context in which exam results are achieved.
It highlighted research which suggested “high-tariff” universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, could lower entry requirements to a B and two Cs for more disadvantaged students without a fall in academic standards.
Focusing on top A-level results risked overlooking people from poorer backgrounds who could have great potential, the report warned, as it suggested looking to the example set by universities in Scotland and the US.
“A young person from a council estate who gets decent A-levels has often had to work a lot harder than the young person from a better off neighbourhood who gets a few grades more,” said Sir Michael Barber, chairman of the OfS.
“That’s why it is right – as this Insight brief highlights – that contextual admissions are now an increasing part of the picture.
“When I visit great American universities, I’m struck by how they look beyond standardised test scores to see potential civic leaders, potential public servants, potential entrepreneurs who can succeed if given the chance to shine. When it comes to trying to reach beyond their traditional intakes, these universities have got something to teach us.
“So that means being bolder in recognising merit, and being ready to recognise how the opportunity that university represents can help our economy and society to draw on a wider talent pool.”
The watchdog also highlighted a programme at King’s College London which spreads the first year of a standard medical degree over two years.
“A review of the programme concluded that, with additional support, students admitted with A-level grades of CCC could thrive on medical degrees,” it said.
So-called contextual admissions are currently in use at some universities, with 14 top institutions indicating on their websites that they may offer entry grades between one and five grades lower to “contextually flagged” applicants.
But the OfS said the practice did not yet go far enough, with young people from more advantaged backgrounds still nearly six times more likely to attend the most selective universities in England.
Chris Millward, director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, added: “We know that school results are not achieved under equal conditions. Educational gaps are evident from a very young age, and stark by the time that young people are thinking about university.
“But exam results are not, on their own, a sufficient reflection of potential to succeed in and beyond higher education, and it is entirely fair to consider the context in which they are achieved.
“Universities have a real opportunity to capitalise on their independence in admissions to rethink the way they judge merit and potential. There is also more to do to ensure that a range of prior qualifications and experience can act as a route into higher education, and that effective support is in place for those who have overcome huge barriers to get to university.”
Professor Vikki Boliver, of Durham University, said a contextualised approach to admissions was “arithmetically necessary” to achieve fairer access to higher education.
She added: “My recommendation to universities and other higher education providers is that they set separate minimum entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged students. The evidence suggests that these could be as low as BCC at the most selective universities without inevitably setting students up to fail.”