CEO Blog Post

UK Universities should adopt a ‘contextual admissions’ policy

Thursday 26th October 2017

Pestalozzi CEO, Susan Walton, says evidence shows that educational institutions can help students overcome poverty and disadvantage. She’s calling on UK Universities to adopt ‘contextual considerations’ in admissions decision making. The experience of Pestalozzi International Village Trust is that such an approach can break the cycle of inter generational poverty.

UK universities are being challenged to make radical changes to their admissions policies to ensure they are not solely the preserve of the privileged and offer real opportunities to disadvantaged students.

Bristol University’s decision to adopt a policy of ‘contextual admissions’ and The Sutton Trust’s call for the lowering of university offers for applicants from deprived backgrounds, has generated a flurry of activity across social media. Much of the comment appears to come from those who have had the privilege of a University education claiming that the world will falter on its axis if our top universities pursue this path of ‘dumbing down’.

As the Chief Executive Officer of a charity that offers educational opportunities to young people who come from some of the world’s poorest communities I couldn’t disagree more. Indeed our experience shows that if we are to truly to address disadvantage and support those who have not had the life chances of the current elite we should be going further than this, providing financial assistance and pastoral encouragement to show that university is an option for them.

This morning I heard a privately educated young woman comment on BBC Radio that allowing young people from poorer backgrounds to access university places with lower grades would devalue all the effort she had put into securing her grades. This, to me, demonstrated a remarkable lack of understanding of the amount of hard work that someone from a poorer background has to put in to overcome the multiple barriers that poverty presents just to get to the point where A-Levels are a realistic option let alone a university place.

Privilege expresses itself in so many different ways from the obvious to the opaque and obscure. Most people recognise the advantage that a private education offers but few understand the difficulties a young person faces when they also care for their parents, have no quiet space in which to study at home or when, as is the case with many of our students, they are unable to pay for the text book they need to study outside of the classroom environment.

Pestalozzi International Village Trust has worked for almost 60 years to provide educational opportunities to young people from some of the poorest countries in the world. Over this time we have learnt that creating opportunities for these young people successfully empowers them to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. We provide access to quality secondary education and for many this paves the way to university education.

When we choose students to benefit from a Pestalozzi scholarship their academic achievement is, of course, a key consideration. However the most important of our selection criteria is identifying that spark of determination, the special something that indicates this young person has already overcome significant obstacles in their early education and has the resilience and commitment to seize the opportunity that a scholarship offers to make a difference for themselves, their family and their community.

Young people who view their university education as a privilege and not an entitlement, who understand this is their chance to build a better future tend to work harder to ensure that they make the most of every opportunity, taking nothing for granted.

We are not the only organisation to recognised this. Our alumni secure fully funded scholarship places at universities such as Harvard, MIT, NYU, Yale, Princeton, Duke and Swarthmore. These institutions have long recognised the value of what is now being referred to as ‘contextual admissions’ and no-one is suggesting that they have ‘dumbed down’. Indeed in the last 20 years 73% of our alumni have studied at universities while 16% undertake Masters Degrees and 3% PhDs before entering the world of work. Understanding the importance that education played in changing their lives they go on to take on leadership roles and found charities to help those who remain in poverty.

None of this would be possible if they had been judged solely on the basis of their academic achievement in secondary education. It is time our top universities recognised this to a much greater extent and played a broader role in overcoming the disadvantages that poverty creates.

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