Promoting fairer access to Higher Education: the necessity of contextualised admissions | University of Oxford

Promoting fairer access to Higher Education: the necessity of contextualised admissions

Andrew Bell (Chair), Vikki Boliver (speaker), Peter Thonemann (response), Neil Harrison (response)
Event date
Event time
17:00 - 18:30
Lady Margaret Hall
Norham Gardens
Venue details


Event type
Lectures and seminars
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Booking required

This seminar is number four in a five-part public seminar series on ‘Student Access to University’, led by the Department of Education and convened by Jo-Anne Baird (Director, Department of Education) and Simon Marginson (Professor of Higher Education, Department of Education). The series forms part of the department’s 100th Anniversary celebrations, marking 100 years of leading research in education. The series will be held at venues across the University and aims to encourage public discussion and move access forward by bringing a research-based treatment to it.

About the series
Access to higher education is a major social issue in the UK as in most countries. Overall participation in the UK is moving towards 50 per cent of the school leaver age group but non-white students, state school students and students from disadvantaged regions of the UK are under-represented in academically elite universities. This pattern affects entry, completion and outcomes in graduate labour markets. Access to the University of Oxford is a persistent debate. Must universities choose between high standards and socially equitable admissions, or can we have both? What is the scope for change?

UK universities are increasingly being called upon to reduce academic entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants as a vital means of promoting fairer access to higher education. This contextualised approach to university admission recognises that the school attainment of disadvantaged learners does not necessarily do justice to their academic potential, and that standard entry requirements typically exceed the minimum needed to succeed at degree level. In this lecture, I lay out the ethical case for reducing entry requirements for disadvantaged learners, arguing that fairness is best conceptualised in terms of distributive rather than procedural justice. Drawing on the findings of research projects funded by the Scottish Funding Council, the ESRC and the Nuffield Foundation, I show that entry requirements could be reduced significantly for disadvantaged learners without ‘setting them up to fail’, but that universities are often conflicted about reducing entry requirements given the prestige attached to admitting only high achievers who can be expected to succeed at university as a matter of course. I also discuss the scope for radical reductions in entry requirements, in conjunction with more active support for students’ learning whilst at university. Finally, I argue that contextualised admissions policies must be targeted accurately if they are to be effective, which means using administratively verified individual-level measures of contextual disadvantage, rather than area level measures such as the POLAR measure of low HE participation areas.

This seminar will be chaired by Andrew Bell (University College). The speaker will include, Vikki Boliver (Professor of Sociology, Durham University) and a response will be given by Peter Thonemann (Tutor for Access, Wadham College) and Neil Harrison (Deputy Director of the Rees Centre for Fostering and Education, Department of Education).