The best applicants are the ones who have the potential to do well across the years, right up to graduationLouis Ashworth

Equality of opportunity is a good thing, right? Surely everyone can agree on that. The University’s successes in widening participation over recent decades (including massively increasing its maintained-sector intake) ought therefore to be celebrated. It is plainly right that a place at a top university like Cambridge is no longer the birth-right of a powerful elite, but a privilege, earned through hard work and determination.

Lately though, concerns have been raised that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Universities, Cambridge included, are now apparently guilty of “social engineering”, by considering contextual data about applicants’ backgrounds when deciding who to offer a place. Consequently, our brightest and best private school students find themselves unfairly discriminated against in favour of weaker candidates from less privileged upbringings. A good sob story is now prized above academic prowess.

Or so The Times and The Telegraph would have you believe. Pearl-clutching over contextualised university admissions has become the latest obsession of right wing broadsheet columnists. Sworn defenders of the upper middle classes, these journalists are particularly sensitive about the use of contextual data in the admissions processes at Oxford and Cambridge, which has made it harder for elite independent-schools (the traditional “Oxbridge-feeders”) to get their pupils in. Aghast at this travesty of justice, they have relentlessly pushed the narrative that “woke” staff at top universities are sacrificing meritocracy in pursuit of equality. An impassioned plea, sure, but their story just doesn’t hold up.

“Social justice and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive – they are two sides of the same coin”

Yes, universities in the UK have increasingly contextualised their admissions processes in recent years, with Cambridge now “flagging” applicants perceived to have faced certain educational disadvantages. However, so-called “social engineering” is not the enemy of meritocracy. It is its very foundation. Social justice and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive – they are two sides of the same coin.

But doesn’t meritocracy mean admitting only the very best students? How do we square this with judging applicants based on their background? Shouldn’t we only consider their ability and ignore everything else? The answer to these knee-jerk responses is to reconsider exactly what makes the “best” candidate.

The opponents of contextualised admissions would have you think that the “best” candidate is just the student with the highest attainment so far – the nameless exam-machine sporting the most impressive collection of grades. If you take this view, then rejecting an applicant in favour of someone else with lower grades will always be wrong, regardless of any disadvantages the successful candidate might have faced in their life.

But this is a ridiculously simplistic and detached way of measuring peoples’ academic worth. The “best” applicant is not always the student with the highest grades, nor the top mark in the entrance exam, but the student with the most academic potential. Universities aren’t looking for drones that can churn out perfect A-Level grades. They’re looking for students who will be at their best over the whole course of their degree, particularly when sitting their final exams.

“When trying to piece together an accurate picture of a student’s academic potential, the more information the better”

This is all the justification universities need for using contextual data in admissions. After all, high grades at A-Level (or IB) are hardly perfect predictors of success in higher education. Why? Because not all grades are made equal. In general, it requires more merit and hard work to achieve something in the face of adversity than it does to achieve it in highly favourable conditions, with lots of help. So, when a significantly disadvantaged student gets a top grade, that grade usually says more about their academic potential than if it belongs to a student who benefitted from many educational advantages.


Mountain View

The other kind of imposter syndrome

It is important to avoid making sweeping generalisations. To say, for example, that all privately-educated students automatically have less potential than their state-school counterparts is patently false. In reality, the true worth of any individual’s achievements will depend heavily on their particular circumstances, beyond just their socio-economic background and their school’s Ofsted rating. The line between privilege and disadvantage is often blurred. ​​But finding that line, and avoiding problematic generalisations, requires more contextual data, not less of it. When trying to piece together an accurate picture of a student’s academic potential, the more information the better.

There is nothing “woke” about universities doing this. In fact, making offers to applicants based on their future potential would make perfect sense even if institutions didn’t actually care about equality or social justice whatsoever. At the end of the day, universities are judged on the results that students graduate with, not the grades they come in with as freshers.

There are debates to be had as to exactly which contextual data should be used and how they should be weighted in the admissions process. But what is clear, at least, is that context is important. It is not enough for universities to consider candidates’ achievements solely in the abstract, as numbers on a page. So, ignore the pearl-clutching columnists and their politics of envy. Done right, “social-engineering” does not undermine meritocracy – it enables it.