Beyond transparency: how universities can improve access

5 September 2017

Few in the university sector will forget the collective shudder that accompanied the Sunday Times front page story on 31 January 2016 when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, unleashed a devastating attack on this country’s top universities for their record in admitting students from poor backgrounds and ethnic minority groups.  At the time, I was at the helm of UCAS, the university admissions service, and we too came under scrutiny, for being stingy with our data.

Cameron’s vow to introduce a law to force universities to publish detailed data on their admissions was later reflected in the Higher Education and Research Act as a ‘Transparency Duty’.

UCAS acted quickly and by December that year had published the most comprehensive set of data about admissions at each of about 130 universities ever released.  It also produced a wealth of complex but highly revealing data through its Equality and Entry Rates Data Explorer.  These data proved that against measures of under-representation, university admissions were broadly fair when attainment and course applied to were taken into account.

But despite the availability of the data Cameron had asked for, little direct action ensued.  Today’s publication of the Reform report ‘Joining the Elite’ makes a start in trying to understand the data that is now freely available.  In a nutshell, the data from only one university, LSE, demonstrates effective use of contextual data.  For all the other universities that use context in making offers and confirming applicants after their results come in, there is scant evidence in the data that it makes a measurable impact on the number of students admitted from under-represented groups.

There are several reasons for this: lack of standardisation in use of contextual factors, poor targeting of interventions, and probably low understanding of what makes a difference. As the Reform report makes clear, there is little correlation between the millions spent through Access Agreements and real impact.

There are a few headline measures that would make a difference.  First, since improvements in access have grown in lock-step with improved GCSE attainment, interventions that help raise achievement at 16 make sense.  Second, the use of context needs a standardised approach to contextual data to improve targeting and impact measurement.  And third, understanding that an offer from a top university has a measurable impact on A level attainment should make universities bolder in their offer making to those whose profile is below their normal thresholds.  Knowing that they could make lower offers without tarnishing their league table points would make contextual offer-making more palatable to high-ranking universities.

Mary Curnock Cook, Former CEO of UCAS

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