Contextual data in admissions:
is it right to use it; is it wrong not to?
FACE Conference 2 July 2009
Dan Shaffer, Senior Project Officer
What is SPA?
Set up in 2006 following the Schwartz Report Fair Admissions to
Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice 2004:
“ The Group recommends the creation of a central source of expertise
and advice on admissions issues. Its purpose would be to act as a
resource for institutions who wish to maintain and enhance excellence
in admissions. Such a centre could lead the continuing development of
fair admissions, evaluating and commissioning research, and
spreading best practice.”
UK’s independent and objective voice on HE admissions
Identify, promote and share examples of good practice
What is “fair” HE admissions?
Schwartz recommended 5 principles for fair admissions:
1. be transparent
2. enable institutions to select students who are able to complete the
course as judged by their achievements and their potential
3. strive to use assessment methods that are reliable and valid
4. seek to minimise barriers to applicants
5. be professional in every respect and underpinned by appropriate
institutional structures and processes
“Equal opportunity for all individuals, regardless of background, to
gain admission to a course suited to their ability and aspirations.”
Contextual data – the debate
Extract from a reject/feedback letter from a 1994 group institution
from Times on-line, 04/04/2009
Every year we have around 20 applicants for each of the small
number of places, nearly all of which are from applicants who
have, or are predicted, AAA at A-level (or equivalent). We also
look very closely at GCSE grades, personal statements and
In order to guarantee fairness we take into account the
educational context within which previous qualifications have been
achieved . . . using a mathematical formula, to recognise
applicants who perform very well at GCSE despite attending a
school where average performance is weak.
Contextual data – the issues
96% of respondents to the first Schwartz consultation (and 98% to
the second) said it was important for HEIs to have students from a
wide range of backgrounds
HEIs need to
differentiate between highly qualified applicants who meet or exceed
the entry requirements (particularly for high demand courses and
particularly in light of government caps on home student numbers)
identify those who will need additional support to succeed once
collect data to demonstrate their student mix and to show how intakes
benchmark against government WP targets
Equality Bill and other legislation guarding against discrimination
Government support for increased use of contextual data
Contextual data – the issues
National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE)
set up in England by Prime Minister 2007.
HE Strand Implementation Plan issued by DIUS, Feb 2009 – work led
by Steve Smith’s (VC at Exeter) Ambassadors Group.
Seven recommendations to be implemented
Recommendation 6:
‘HEIs should continue to use, and where possible expand the
range of, all the information available to them to identify the
best students with the greatest potential and ability to reach the
highest academic achievement.’
SPA paper to NCEE Ambassadors Group 21 May 2009
Contextual data – considerations
data for decision making (offer)
data for monitoring or diagnostic
sensitive or personal data
aggregate data
validated data
unvalidated/self-reported data
applicant submitted data
institution sought data
individual holistic assessment
associative holistic assessment
(based on correlation within groups)
to meet institutional mission for a
diverse student mix
to meet government WP targets
To identify potential
To identify ‘coaching’ or other
NB - contextual data is not the only information considered
before a decision is made
SPAs draft principles on contextual data
1. The use of contextual data within a course’s entry criteria must be
 evidence based and justifiable to ensure HEIs adhere to good
 relevant to the admissions decision making process
 valid and reliable (much of the data via UCAS is self declared)
 used to provide fairness and equality of opportunity to all
applicants applying to a course using such data at an HEI
 transparent to applicants and their advisors in terms of
what contextual data is used, if any
how it will be used and when it is used
communicated to applicants in a clear and timely manner via
Entry Profiles, WP activities, HE websites etc.
SPAs draft principles on contextual data
2. Regular monitoring of the use of the data and related audit trails
should be an integral part of the admissions process
3. Admissions staff using contextual data in decision making should
be aware of the issues surrounding contextual data and be
trained in how to interpret and use the data.
4. Appropriate transition and in-session learner support should be
provided to ensure potential continues to be developed on the
If HEIs use contextual data, transparency benefits the applicants
and their advisors as well as the HEI. This should be addressed
and communicated by the HE sector in a more robust way.
Contextual data – what next?
Some HEIs already using contextual data in decision making and
others considering doing so following NCEE recommendations
Growing diversification of practice as individual HEIs adopt own
SPA draft principles on contextual data to be finalised following
final consultations with key stakeholders
Your views on these principles useful in shaping national
What are your views on the use of contextual data?
Thank you
Email [email protected], call 01242 544891

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