GCSE attainment: the answer to our ‘university challenge’?

12 December 2018
By Mary Curnock Cook
Independent Education Expert and Former Chief Executive Officer of UCAS
Mary Curnock Cook

Reading Reform’s updated report, Gaining access: Increasing the participation of disadvantaged students at elite universities, I couldn’t help wincing on behalf of many of the universities in their high tariff university access ranking.  As the report itself acknowledges, we have yet to find a truly meaningful definition of ‘disadvantage’ that takes the controversy out of measuring it, or indeed for managing ‘contextual’ admissions policies in universities.  This shows in some of the ranking movements which probably don’t represent the dramatic shifts in success that the table may suggest.

The widening (and indeed ‘fair’) access debate is usually confined to higher-tariff universities because this is where the biggest gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students exist.  There isn’t much of a focus on medium and lower-tariff universities because they are much more equal in their intake – indeed for these universities to make dramatic improvements in diversity, we’d need to see higher-tariff universities turn away large numbers of advantaged students.  Much widening access activity is about how the existing Level 3 (such as A levels) qualified candidates are shared out amongst the universities in the UK.  Contextual admissions, where some universities lower their entry conditions to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is often about shifting students with less stellar A level grades from lower tariff universities to more selective providers.

If we want to make a dramatic impact on participation in higher education, to widen it to more of those from lower-income families, Free School Meal students, and first generation in HE, then access activity needs to shift to younger pupils.  Universities are justified in bristling at the idea that they should take responsibility for failures in the school system. But this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t use their message of success to help schools raise the sights of students who might go through their entire education with no idea that university is in their reach.

The biggest barrier to access to university is at age 16 not at age 18.  Put simply, if you don’t get a decent set of GCSE grades, including English and mathematics, you are unlikely to go on to Level 3 qualifications which are a prerequisite for progression to university.  With the Office for Students moving from annual to longer horizons for universities’ access and participation plans, universities can also take a longer view.  Working with schools and third sector organisations that specialise in supporting aspiration and the crucial attainment at GCSE, universities could dramatically increase the pool of level 3 qualified students to whom they target their traditional support and contextualised admissions work.  

This shift in activity is especially important when the population of school leavers, recently in decline by a few percentage points each year, starts to climb again post 2021.  It won’t be a good look for universities if they grow their intake off the back of a demographic upturn without making measurable improvements in the diversity of their intake. Universities should switch access activities to focus on the 14 and 15-year olds who need support and motivation to get good GCSEs.  Then there is a good chance that diversity will again start to improve much faster.

Mary is an Independent Education Expert and the Former Chief Executive Officer of UCAS.

Working with schools and third sector organisations that specialise in supporting aspiration and the crucial attainment at GCSE, universities could dramatically increase the pool of level 3 qualified students to whom they target their traditional support and contextualised admissions work.