What is contextualised admissions?

Contextualised admissions is defined as contextual information and contextual data used by universities and colleges to assess an applicant’s prior attainment and potential to succeed in higher education (HE) in the context of the circumstances in which their attainment has been obtained. 

Contextual data includes educational, geo-demographic and socio-economic background data.  Contextual information includes self-declared information by the applicant, such as they have been in care, or it could be broader information such as the HE providers own data and research.

The SPA research project, Contextualised Admissions: Examining the evidence report (2012), highlighted the variety of data used to inform fair admissions that can be used for young (aged 18-19) applicants:

Contextual data: from data fields in the application, or data linked to application data field. This may include educational, geo-demographic and socio-economic background data such as:

  • the use of the UCAS Contextual Data Service – which is data provided from public sources such as government school performance data or young participation in HE rates by neighbourhood data (Polar 3). See briefing below.
  • commercial sources
  • other sources (e.g. direct from government departments/agencies)
  • the HE providers own data and research

Contextual information: gained through assessment of information about applicant circumstances e.g. applicants for full-time undergraduate courses will self-declare, through UCAS, some contextual information as part of their application, such as if they have been in care, and from information from the personal statement, reference, perhaps an additional questionnaire and local knowledge of schools and colleges.

This is also likely to include contextualisation through widening access, participation and outreach activities where HE providers are aware of the applicants’ participation and success in activities such as compact schemes and summer schools. Here the targeting and identification of potential students occurs prior to the application to HE stage, but is followed through and the information included in the consideration of the applicant.

To help ensure applicants with contextual factors are not missed within the admissions process and in order to provide support to applicants, flagging or coding is often employed by universities and colleges.

Why do HE providers use contextualised admissions?

Higher education providers have been using contextual data for fair access and maintain academic excellence for many years. The use of this ‘contextual’ data was given further impetus with the publication of the Schwartz Report Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for good practice  in 2004, and more recently with policy initiatives from governments across the UK.

Extensive research shows that socio-economic background, where you live, type of school attended, and subject choice can all impact on attainment and therefore progression to higher education.

Contextualised admissions is used in an attempt to mitigate these factors, by using a wider range of indicators to identify who ‘merits’ a place rather than attainment alone. Applied robustly and within a holistic process, the use of contextualised data and information in admissions can be an effective tool in identifying the applicants with greatest potential to succeed in HE.


Details of the 2015 contextual data available through UCAS link products is provided in the Providers section of the UCAS website (log in required). SPA continues to collaborate with UCAS on its review of the UCAS Contextual Data service (CDS), within a wider review of how UCAS might help HE providers with contextualised admissions.

SPA has supported UCAS to produce a flyer, for advisers, in conjunction with the Fair Education Alliance. The flyer, Contextualised admissions: what it means for your students,  covers what contextual information and data is; how this is used by HE providers; what it might mean for students; and how advisers can support contextualised admissions. We hope that schools liaison and outreach staff will find the flyer a useful resource in their discussions with schools and colleges.

Wed, 01/03/2017 - 17:26