UK universities are increasingly being called upon to reduce academic entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants as a vital means of promoting fairer access to higher education. This contextualised approach to university admission recognises that the school attainment of disadvantaged learners does not necessarily do justice to their academic potential, and that standard entry requirements typically exceed the minimum needed to succeed at degree level. In this lecture, I lay out the ethical case for reducing entry requirements for disadvantaged learners, arguing that fairness is best conceptualised in terms of distributive rather than procedural justice. Drawing on the findings of research projects funded by the Scottish Funding Council, the ESRC and the Nuffield Foundation, I show that entry requirements could be reduced significantly for disadvantaged learners without ‘setting them up to fail’, but that universities are often conflicted about reducing entry requirements given the prestige attached to admitting only high achievers who can be expected to succeed at university as a matter of course. I also discuss the scope for radical reductions in entry requirements, in conjunction with more active support for students’ learning whilst at university. Finally, I argue that contextualised admissions policies must be targeted accurately if they are to be effective, which means using administratively verified individual-level measures of contextual disadvantage, rather than area level measures such as the POLAR measure of low HE participation areas.

This seminar is number four in a five-part public seminar series on ‘Student Access to University’, led by the Department of Education and convened by Jo-Anne Baird (Director, Department of Education) and Simon Marginson (Professor of Higher Education, Department of Education). The series forms part of the department’s 100th Anniversary celebrations, marking 100 years of leading research in education. The series will be held at venues across the University and aims to encourage public discussion and move access forward by bringing a research-based treatment to it.

Registration is required.

This seminar will be chaired by Andrew Bell (University College, University of Oxford). The speaker will include, Vikki Boliver (Professor of Sociology, Durham University) and a response will be given by Peter Thonemann (Tutor for Access, Wadham College, University of Oxford) and Neil Harrison (Deputy Director of the Rees Centre for Fostering and Education, Department of Education, University of Oxford).
Date: 25 February 2019, 17:00 (Monday, 7th week, Hilary 2019)
Venue: Lady Margaret Hall, Norham Gardens OX2 6QA
Venue Details: TBA
Speakers: Dr Andrew Bell (Department of Experimental Psychology), Vikki Boliver (Professor of Sociology, Durham University), Peter Thonemann (Tutor for Access, Wadham College, University of Oxford), Neil Harrison (Deputy Director of the Rees Centre for Fostering and Education, Department of Education, University of Oxford)
Organising department: Department of Education
Organiser contact email address:
Hosts: Professor Simon Marginson (Department of Education, University of Oxford), Professor Jo-Anne Baird (University of Oxford)
Part of: Student Access to University Public Seminar Series
Booking required?: Required
Booking url:
Cost: Free
Audience: Public
Editor: Hannah Kingerlee