Fair Access Research: Admissions

 Admissions is one of five themes in the Fair Access Research Project (FAR)

Are university admissions processes fair to all?  Are they transparent?  And can widening participation (WP) students access what they need to help in their decisions about HE?

Browse on this page or jump to specific sections to explore how our research investigates the impact of the admissions process for WP students and aims to increase understanding of the relationship between admissions and widening access.

Keeping HE Admissions fair

Understanding Admissions

How do I perceive myself?



Keeping HE Admissions fair

Dr Vanessa Heaslip, co-principal investigator of the FAR Project, was invited to join a National Expert Think Tank (NETT) to inform and influence topical national debate on fairness and good practice in HE admissions.  The group then developed a framework for selecting (or not selecting) to use additional admission assessment as part of a fair admissions process.

Expand to read more

The NETT was convened by convened by Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) to consider how fair admissions can be maintained and enhanced in the current HE landscape, how fair admissions is understood across the sector in the UK and what it means to individual HE providers.

Dr. Heaslip led the working group which explored additional admission assessments used and conducted research to explore schools, colleges and university admission staff perceptions and use of additional admissions assessments.

Guidance document produced:
SPA National Expert Think Tank. 2016. Fair Admissions in a competitive environment A process to ensure fair admissions in additional admissions assessments

Conference paper on the BU process:
Heaslip, V. 2016. Additional Admission Assessments SPA National Conference. 14th June 2016, Universities UK, Woburn House, London.

Conference webpage
Further information and resources are on the SPA Fair Admissions NETT webpage

Understanding admissionsAdmissions

In consideration of fair admissions and the notion of transparency, we analysed our admissions data exploring application and conversion rates across a number of WP characteristics and undertook a review highlighting existing areas of good practice and any areas which required future work.

Read more

Principles of fair admissions advocated by Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) are those identified in the Schwartz Report which identified that a fair admissions system should:

  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 for applicants,
  5. Be professional in every aspect and underpinned by appropriate institutional structures and processes.

This notion of transparency in the admissions process is gaining momentum; the recent white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy (Department for Business and Skills 2016)  advocates the introduction of a ‘transparency’ duty requiring regulated higher education providers to publish data on the backgrounds of their applicants thus shining a light on the admissions process.  One way of ensuring this transparency review is for institutions to critically analyse their admissions data exploring application and conversion rates across a number of WP characteristics.

We reviewed the admissions data held by Bournemouth University (from initial application through to final enrolment) from 2010/11 to 2014/15 and compared these to the national data with regards to specific Widening Participation groups including:

  1. Low Participation Neighbourhoods (LPN),
  2. Students with a disability
  3. Care leavers
  4. Specific demographic data categories (ACORN)

What this enabled us to do is to undertake a systematic review across the different programmes and faculties across BU highlighting existing areas of good practice and any areas which required future work. It was apparent from the review that BU had a sustained record of attracting applications from Widening Participation (WP) students, a number of which were converted to enrolments. However it also identified that more targeted work was required in the area of Low Participant Neighbourhoods, where fewer young people transition to higher education, in order to strengthen the number of applications and conversions. In addition, while we recognised applications from care leavers to BU was higher than the national average and we felt this was worthy of future work. This review also highlighted that reaching conclusions regarding the admissions and enrolment of disabled students was problematic due to the extent of non-disclosure to questions about disability at application stage: this enabled us to focus on this an another area of work.

23854Care Leavers Project

This project, arising from the FAR programme, is a collaborative one with many local stakeholders including three virtual school headteachers, exploring the perceptions and aspirations of young people in care considering progressing to further or higher education.

Read more

0.7% of the total students in BU are care leavers and while this is above the national figure of 0.6% we felt that more could be done within this area. There are national concerns that care leavers remain very disadvantaged with regards to accessing HE (BIS 2014). In 2015, less than a quarter of 19 to 21 year-old care leavers were in further or higher education.

This associated study aimed to explore perceptions and aspirations of young people in care considering progressing to further or higher education. In particular, we were keen to identify where they currently seek advice and guidance, the resources they access and some of the challenges they face in making an informed decision.
This project was a collaborative project between BU and the three virtual school Head teachers in Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset. The study included focus groups and interviews with the key stakeholders (young people in care, care leavers in HE, social workers, virtual school teams, school teachers, foster carers and other key workers).
This provided a rich picture of young people’s ambitions, the breadth of advice and guidance available and the importance of personal relationships in supporting these young people.

What our findings suggest
The findings suggest that young people seek advice from a range of sources. However, sometimes the guidance given is felt to be limited or incomplete. One of the overwhelming findings was the sense of the barriers that young people from a care background face when considering HE and these included social, financial or cultural capital required to continue into further or higher education. For those young people who do make this transition, it is clear that on-going individual support provided by the institution will help overcome the on-going personal, financial and academic challenges they may face.

This study has identified the support and commitment available to young people in care and also highlighted their increasing reliance on online resources. As well as using such technology for social purposes (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) they also use online sites to seek further information, clarify uncertainties and help in their decision-making. It is clear that the relationship they have with one or more of their key contacts is crucial in helping them develop the confidence and knowledge to progress to further or higher education.

Supporting care leavers into higher education: What works?
Read about the Care Leavers Workshop on 7th November 2017.  This interactive session will explore how schools, universities and those supporting young people in care can work together to encourage and help more Care Leavers progress into Higher Education.

Conference paper on the Care Leavers Project:
Eccles, S., Heaslip, V. 2017. Young People in Care: Aspirations and Experiences of Progressing to Further or Higher Education. British Education Research Association (BERA) Conference. September 2017, University of Sussex, Brighton.
Accompanying conference abstract.  BERA Conference 2017. Care Leavers Abstract

Care Leavers’ Journey to HE flyer

Read more about the national picture in the OFFA Topic Briefing: Care Leavers

For further information please contact Dr Vanessa Heaslip or Dr Sue Eccles.

How do I perceive myself? Understanding perceptions of disability self jigsaw piece

This study explored HE students’ perceptions of what disability implies in the context of applying to a UK university and aimed to understand some of the complexities and experiences of disability.   A review was completed of the admissions and enrolment data for all applicants to BU between academic years 2010-11 to 2014-15, to explore if there were differences in application and enrolment for students from different backgrounds

Read more

The data was analysed according to key widening participation markers including:

  • Whether or not the applicant disclosed a disability,
  • Whether or not the applicant came from a low-participation neighbourhood (LPN),
  • Whether or not the applicant was a care leaver.

One of the key findings from this review was that BU (in common with other universities) had a significant number of applications (1257) from applicants who did not specify on their UCAS application form if they had a disability or not. This raised the question as to why some students enter higher education with a disability (as defined on the UCAS form), but do not always declare it at the application stage. In particular, we were keen to understand the extent to which some applicants are unsure whether or not they have a disability for the purposes of the question regarding disability on application forms and how the students themselves define ’disability’.

For the purposes of this study, and aligned with University Central Admissions Scheme (UCAS) Admissions Guidance, ‘disability’ applies to any student with:

  • a social/communication impairment (e.g. Asperger, ADHD/ADD, and individuals on the Autistic Spectrum);
  • a visual impairment; a serious hearing impairment;
  • a long standing medical condition (e.g. cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, ME);
  • an on-going mental health condition (e.g. anxiety, Bipolar);
  • a specific learning difficulty (e.g. dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia);
  • a physical impairment or mobility issue
    (UCAS, 2017)

Two Undergraduate Research Assistants worked with the FAR team to explore perceptions of disability in the admissions process. A comprehensive literature review was completed to complement the analysis of how students view disability and the factors that might influence whether they declared a specific disability or not.

Our research methods included an in-depth literature review, focus groups with students and interviews. We were interested to see how students view disability, and what factors influence whether an individual would declare a specific disability on the UCAS application form, or why they would choose not to declare a disability.  This includes whether students perceive particular impairments, such as physical disability or mental illness, as a disability – and if not, why not?  As undergraduate students used our current research skills and were able to build on these through working with senior academics. We hoped to contribute to a richer understanding of student perceptions of disability, which could possibly improve the student experience.”
– Undergraduate Researchers: Lydia Schmidt (BA Sociology and Anthropology) and Olivia Berry (BA Psychology)

What our findings suggest
The findings suggested there is a lack of understanding about what is or is not a disability, concern that disclosure will negatively impact on the application decision and anxiety that such disclosure would in some way mark out or disadvantage the student.  The themes that emerge are focused on previous experiences and assumptions about disability, confusion and uncertainty about declaring a disability at the point of application, the risk and stigma perceived or experienced on declaring a disability and concern about the future consequences of being labelled as disabled.

This small scale study suggests that there is still work to be done in supporting young people in understanding the range and breadth of disabilities and addressing some of the actual or perceived risks they appear to associate with declaring a disability. While some of this may be achieved whilst they are still at school, universities have a role to play in explaining and reinforcing that declaring a disability does not impact on their overall application and, indeed, allows them to be more aware of and able to support all those students starting at university with any physical, mental or medical disability. However, it seems that it is the term disability itself which carries connotations of negativity – it is about conditions ‘they’ have, rather than ‘I’ have. This may inform decisions at university application stage about the best terminology to use that encourages students to make more informed choices about disclosure any condition or situation that would ensure they get the very best support at the point of application and beyond.

Read a view of the project from undergraduate researchers, Lydia and Olivia, in Fair Access Briefing 1

Further background information is available on the CEL Blog: Fair Access and Admissions

For further information please contact Dr Sue Eccles.

BU Admissions Guidance for WP

Students with the real potential to succeed in Higher Education need to have an equal opportunity to come to university, whatever their background or life experience.  Admissions have a key role in enabling this as well as building the reputation and credibility of the University.  The FAR team worked with BU colleagues to develop a guidance document to support admissions staff when they are considering admissions of WP students.

Read the WP guidance for admissions staff

For further information please contact Dr Vanessa Heaslip





Back to Top | Homepage | Continuation| Experience | Outreach | Ways of Working