Fair Admissions and the Elite University: An examination of the practice of contextualisation in the undergraduate admissions process

Lynn Featherstone


This study examines the response to a new admissions policy at an elite UK university. It looks specifically at the attitudes and practices of individual selectors to the practice of contextualisation in light of recent policy recommendations in this area (DfES 2004). A mixed-methods approach is taken, involving a questionnaire and semi-structured interviews with a small sample of selectors at the case study institution. The findings underline the complexities of the admissions assessment process, and the variation in practice amongst selectors. The data tentatively suggests that differences are not just a matter of personal judgement and value, but are also linked to subject discipline and prior educational experiences. Most selectors are broadly accepting of the concept of contextualisation, but how this is reflected in their practice varies considerably. Whilst some view it as an integral part of the selection process, others believe it to have no bearing on an academic assessment. The study finds that the response to the contextualisation policy is broadly positive, though variation in practice demonstrates how it has become refracted in the process of implementation. The study concludes by suggesting that, in an institution where individuals are making individual judgements about individual applicants, the idea that this approach will lead to fair and consistent outcomes is questionable. Nevertheless, the contextualisation policy has had the result of embedding the discourse of contextualisation within an elite institution.

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Editor-in-Chief: Prof Norbert Pachler
UCL Institute of Education, University College London
ISSN 1746-9082

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