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Higher Education Funding and Access

Broadening Access to Higher Education

Reducing inequalities in access and attainment between students from different backgrounds

Every year around £1 billion is invested in outreach work to improve fair access to higher education, but there has been a lack of evaluation activity to understand the impact of this work and ensure value for money. Dr Claire Crawford's work on the evaluation of higher education (HE) outreach activities has increased awareness of the importance of evaluation activity and helped to change evaluation practice in the HE sector. The research team also investigated the idea of ‘contextual admissions’ – taking social criteria into account as well as grades – assessing its effectiveness in widening access to higher education.


The challenge

The government and HE institutions needed to understand what impact their outreach work was having, and whether it was really benefitting students in the ways hoped. In relation to contextual admissions, few universities – especially the most selective institutions – seemed to be using contextual data to widen access to their institutions. A lack of transparency meant that researchers and applicants alike were unclear about how and what data would inform admissions.


Our approach

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) commissioned Dr Crawford and colleagues to investigate how Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in England currently evaluate their widening participation activities, and to provide guidance on best practice evaluation methods. The research identified current practices and challenges in outreach evaluation work and areas where more guidance is needed, leading to the development of proposed standards of evaluation.

Dr Crawford, along with co-authors at the University of Durham, was also commissioned by The Sutton Trust to conduct research into the use of contextual admissions among universities in the UK. Findings include:

  • The gap in university access between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers at the most selective universities remains stubbornly wide.

  • Greater use of contextual admissions could result in a substantial increase in the number of low-income students at the UK's most selective universities.

  • There is little evidence to suggest that universities that practice greater contextualisation see significantly higher dropout rates, lower degree completion rates, or lower degree class results.


Our impact

Following Dr Crawford’s research on evaluation Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS), said: "I will be looking for all providers to improve their use of evidence and evaluation so that we can make sure that investment is being focused on the activities that are most effective." The Government also confirmed that it has asked the OfS to focus on evaluation as a matter of priority, to ensure that spending on access and participation activities by the HE sector is having maximum positive impact.

Dr Crawford’s report entitled Admissions in Context for the Sutton Trust, has raised awareness of the benefits possible through admissions policy reform. The report received extensive coverage across the national and regional press, radio and TV news, and from key players in the education sector. Governments in England and Scotland have taken Dr Crawford’s ideas on board, and universities are now being encouraged to make information on contextual admissions more transparent.

Explore The Sutton Trust's report 'Admissions in Context'

Read The Guardian's coverage of the research and questions to Dr Crawford

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