University admissions in context
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a middle aged businessman who told me that he was the first person in his wider family ever to have gone to university. Coming from a family of modest means, he had been fired up by the adventure of learning and, having passed all his examinations with very high marks, he eventually entered a top university. He went on to make a fortune in business. As he told me all this, he mused that he was the only one of his class to get to university; and in fact it took another eight years for anyone else from his school to go that way.
It is of course not difficult to grasp why some schools send so few students into higher education. A school with inadequate resources, shabby looking classrooms, inadequate or no science or language labs – and most of all, a lack of ambition – will not compete with well resourced private schools that will expect all of their pupils to go on to get a degree. And yet many will argue that the criteria for higher education admission should be blind to this fact, and should accept only those who meet the institution’s entry requirements; anything else would be social engineering and would undermine standards, as those admitted with lesser qualifications would struggle to cope.
As it happens, recently published evidence shows that disadvantaged students admitted to a university, having lower grades than those applying normally, will in fact often out-perform more privileged students by the time they get to their examinations. The practice known as ‘contextual admission’ is therefore a useful tool in the box of those wanting to erode the discriminatory effect of schooling.
Contextual admissions are not a radical step designed to undermine the aspirations of middle class students and their parents. Rather they are a genuine effort by the higher education system to correct the discriminatory effect within higher education of poverty and deprivation. Many universities now routinely use such admissions methods, leading to not just a fairer system but, it appears, an intellectually superior one.