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Durham University

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Mapping and Evaluating the use of contextual data in undergraduate admissions in Scotland

A research project of the School of Education.


Contextualised admissions policies represent a potentially powerful means of addressing the persistent under-representation of students from less advantaged backgrounds in higher education, especially in the UK’s most selective higher education institutions (Boliver 2013). However, this potential has yet to be rigorously evaluated. The independent body Supporting Professionalism in Admissions has emphasised the importance of using contextual indicators that are both valid and reliable (SPA 2010), but universities have voiced concerns about which indicators of context to use and about the quality of the contextual data available to them (Bridger, Shaw and Moore 2012). SPA has also stressed the importance of contextual admissions policies being justifiable in light of the evidence base (SPA 2010), but while some studies suggest that students from less advantaged contexts perform as well or better at degree level than more advantaged students with comparable qualifications on entry (Ogg, Zimdars and Heath 2009; Hoare and Johnston 2011; Lasselle 2014; HEFCE 2014) other studies have found that such students perform less well and may be at greater risk of failing their degree or dropping out (Croxford et al 2013; HEFCE 2014).


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Mapping And Evaluating The Use Of Contextual Data In Undergraduate Admissions In Scotland (£15600.00 from Scottish Funding Council)


We will undertake a rigorous quantitative analysis of data on young members of the Scottish Longitudinal Study, linked to undergraduate student records data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for the subset who went on to university. The purpose of the analysis will be to develop a set of evidence-based recommendations for Scottish higher education institutions wishing to use contextual data to better identify and support students from disadvantaged contexts who have the potential to succeed in higher education. In particular the study will provide the Scottish Funding Council and individual HEIs in Scotland with the robust information needed to:

1) Establish which contextual indicators, singly and in combination, best capture the socioeconomic circumstances of individuals.

2) Determine how well different contextual indicators, singly and in combination, predict success at degree level for comparatively disadvantaged students, in absolute and relative terms.

3) Predict how much impact particular contextual admissions policies can be expected to have on the goal of widening participation in higher education.


From the School of Education

From other departments