Rethinking merit in pursuit of fairer admission to universities in England

The higher education regulator has recently encouraged England’s most academically selective universities to engage in a process of “rethinking how merit is judged in admissions” (Office for Students 2019: 8). This will require a shift away from the traditional “meritocratic equality of opportunity” model of fair admission, which holds that university places should go to the most highly qualified candidates irrespective of social background, towards an alternative “meritocratic equity of opportunity” model, which holds that prospective students’ qualifications should be judged in light of the socioeconomic circumstances in which they were obtained. This CGHE seminar presents the findings of a Nuffield Foundation funded research project which explored how selective universities in England conceived of “fair admission”, both before and after the call to “rethink merit”.

In-depth interviews conducted in 2017/18 with 78 admissions personnel at 17 selective universities in England showed that, prior to the call to “rethink merit”, fairness was framed principally with reference to the traditional meritocratic equality of opportunity model. Universities relied heavily on predicted A-level grades as an indicator of applicant ‘merit’, despite knowing that grades were often over-predicted and that a substantial number of offer-holders would ultimately be admitted without having achieved the required grades. Only half of the universities routinely reduced academic entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants, typically by just one or two grades. Sympathy for the alternative meritocratic equity of opportunity model was hampered by resistance by some academic staff to reducing academic entry requirements for fear of setting students up to fail, and by recognition that existing pedagogical practices and academic support structures were inadequate to the task of ensuring that contextually admitted students would be supported to fulfil their potential.

Analysis of the Access and Participation Plans submitted to the Office for Students by England’s 25 higher-tariff universities in 2019 revealed that there had been a shift in institutional thinking on fair admissions since our interviews in 2017/18. All 25 universities had committed to much more ambitious widening access targets than ever before, and 21 universities reported reducing academic entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants in recognition of the impact of socioeconomic inequality on prior attainment. All 25 universities acknowledged that they had a major role to play in ensuring the success of their students at degree level, committing to a range of new initiatives designed to significantly improve the social and academic inclusion of students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups.