Filling University Places: The Demand for Contextual Data

By Jen Turner

By Ralph Daily from Birmingham, United States (Graduated!) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsFollowing on from my colleague Fiona Ferbrache’s previous posting on funding in higher education, it is clear that the future of Universities is a hot press topic this week.  Today, the BBC reported how recent findings from research by the the Social Mobility Commission has made some significant claims that the UK’s top universities have become less socially representative in the past decade. The report, Higher Education: The fair access challenge, focuses on 24 leading universities, members of the Russell Group universities, which are among the most competitive to get into. It illustrates how the proportion of students from state schools who started a full-time course in one of the top 24 universities fell slightly between 2002-3 and 2011-12.

A separate measure of how many students came from disadvantaged backgrounds also saw a fall of 0.9 percentage points, the  report said. The government said applications from poor youngsters were at a record high. Led by former Labour minister, Alan Milburn, the commission found that in contrast to the overall university sector, which has become more “socially representative” since 2002-3, these most selective universities have become more “socially exclusive”. It argues that although the estimated number of state school pupils entering these universities increased by 1,464 over the period, there was still a slight fall in the overall proportion. Although some universities in the group had managed to increase their percentage of students from state schools, including Edinburgh (by 4.6 percentage points), Oxford (by 2.3) and Cambridge (by 0.3), Durham saw a fall of 9.9 percentage points in their state-educated students and Newcastle and Warwick each had drops of around 4.5.

The commission also pointed out that the intake of the most selective universities was more socially advantaged than would be expected given the social background of those with the necessary A-level grades to get a place. One possible explanation, the report says, is that many students who have the right grades simply do not apply to the most selective institutions.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said getting a university education should be based on ability, not where you come from. “To ensure worries about finance are not putting off students we have increased grants to help with living costs, introduced a more progressive student loans system, and extended help to part-time students. We are committed to improving social mobility, and are pleased that this year the level of university applications from the most disadvantaged 18-year-olds are at their highest proportion ever.” Chief executive of Universities UK Nicola Dandridge said: “Widening participation requires ‘a genuine national effort’ with sustained support from schools, colleges and universities, as well as continued investment by government.”

These issues are just a small example of much wider discourse surrounding the contemporary university system. Furthermore, it is interesting to question how these emerging demographic patterns might influence individual subjects within the university context.  An excellent position paper addressing similar themes is provided by Kevin Stannard in his 2003 Area commentary. Stannard particularly notes the demands for geography departments to take account of changing pedagogic patterns in GCSE and A-Level teaching, as well as the need to consider how students fund themselves and how the proliferation of certain types of media should be considered in drawing up course plans for current students. In view of the Social Mobility Commission’s findings, there is a clear call for universities to be set clear statistical targets for progress on widening participation which should be a top priority. And it calls for universities to make greater use of contextual data when offering places. This means that they might make a lower offer to a pupil from a state school who shows academic promise. It seems that geography departments across the UK will likely now have to move beyond considering how students learn and what they demand for their money, into further debates surrounding the type of students that they now find within their lecture halls.


Kevin Stannard (2003) Earth to academia: on the need to reconnect university and school geographyArea, 35(3) 316–322.


Hannah Richardson, Top universities ‘have become less representative’, BBC News (ONLINE), 17 June 2013

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