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Durham University

Research & business

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Evaluating the use of contextual data in undergraduate admissions

A research project of the School of Education.


Universities are increasingly using 'contextual data' to help them identify prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to succeed in higher education. At present, however, it is not clear which kinds of contextual data best capture the socioeconomic circumstances of individuals or what the consequences of particular contextual admissions policies might be for widening participation and student achievement. This project sets out to meet an urgent need for evidence-based guidance on the effective use of contextual data in university admissions.


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Evaluating The Use Of Contextual Data In Undergraduate Admissions (£39834.10 from ESRC)


The primary objectives of the research are:

1. To determine which of the various individual-level, school-level and neighbourhood-level contextual variables available to universities are the most valid indicators of the socioeconomic circumstances of individual applicants;

2. To establish which combinations of contextual indicators most reliably identify applicants who are likely to perform at least as well at degree level as comparably qualified applicants from more advantaged environments, and which indicators most reliably identify applicants who are likely to need additional support to achieve their full potential;

3. To provide estimates of the likely impact of different contextual admissions policies on widening participation within individual universities and across the sector as a whole;

4. To develop a set of evidence-based recommendations which can be used by universities to develop effective contextual admissions policies appropriate to the specific character and needs of the institution, and by policy-makers wishing to pursue the most promising avenues for widening participation;

5. To support and mentor an excellent early career researcher, CI Dr Nadia Siddiqui, who wishes to develop expertise in the robust evaluation of social policy.


From the School of Education