Date TimeJuly 24, 2019
Universities are making lower offers to poor students under the radar to avoid middle class backlash, report says
Universities have been making lower offers to disadvantaged students “under the radar” to avoid a backlash from middle class students, a report has said. Higher education institutions have been quietly using so-called “contextual offers” as part of their admissions system in order to escape “negative reactions”, according to a research paper by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi). Many top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, use contextual data to “flag” applicants who are from disadvantaged backgrounds. This could include students who have been in care, who are from a deprived area or who have been to a poorly performing school.    A survey of 1,035 undergraduates, conducted by Hepi and YouthSight, found that 45 per cent oppose the use of contextual offers. Students at the most selective Russell Group universities were more likely to support lower grade offers, with 36 per cent saying they were against them.    Over a quarter (29 per cent) of those polled felt that making lower offers to their peers from deprived backgrounds would make it harder for “students like me” to get into university.   Meanwhile, 39 per cent said that students admitted with lower grades would not be able to keep up academically with the course requirements. The survey also found that nearly three quarters of students thought university admissions should take account of an applicant's background. Poor pupils with one B and two Cs at A-Level should be considered for places at Oxbridge, the OfS said “There has been a temptation for universities to run systems of contextual offers somewhat under the radar in order to avoid negative reactions,” the Hepi report said.   “However, meeting the fair access targets set on institutions will likely necessitate significant growth in contextual admissions. So it remains important to earn support among students and the public.”   Universities are under pressure from the higher education watchdog to admit more students from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds. Earlier this year, the Office for Students (OfS) said poor pupils with one B and two Cs at A-Level should be considered for places at Oxbridge to increase diversity in top institutions.  The regulator claimed so-called contextual offers give bright students from deprived areas a route into university, without risking a fall in academic standards. It suggested England’s higher education sector needed to be “more ambitious” with how it handles applications from candidates with deprived backgrounds, similar to US and Scottish institutions. However, the watchdog has also admitted that top universities will need to accept fewer middle class students in order to meet diversity targets. Russell Group institutions must "eliminate" the gap in admissions between wealthier students and their less well-off peers within 20 years, according to OfS targets. But in order to achieve this, they will need to “considerably reduce” the number of students they admit from well-off backgrounds, the regulator’s analysis found. Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said that universities have been hesitant to publicise the fact that they are giving lower offers to disadvantage students because they fear students are averse to the practise.   "Giving disadvantaged applicants lower entry offers is one of the most controversial things that universities do,” he said.   “Students will be worried that the person sitting next to them in the lecture hall has been let in on an easier criteria. "Our results are mixed – there is a lot of sympathy for lowering offers but it is about half-half. So there is still considerable work to be done on winning over hearts and minds."   The OfS said there was ample evidence of stark educational gaps between the most and least advantaged young people. Chris Millward, its director for fair access and participation, said that universities need to make “significant changes” to ensure their admissions process looks “beyond grades to identify merit, recognising the potential of talented candidates from under-represented backgrounds who have so much to offer to their fellow students, university community and wider society”.

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