Written by Daisy Chapman, 20.
UCAS applications, visit days, course profiles and that's before exams even begin. For some, the process of applying to study at university can seem like a complete minefield. This is perhaps more pronounced for those from families with low educational attainment, those without significant familial support, or those who have attended underperforming schools or colleges. The current loans system, whereby repayments don’t begin until you are earning over a threshold income, is often touted as a huge measure to enable less advantaged students to enter the University environment, but that is only once you get in. And it is here that contextual offers come into play for many.
I don’t fully understand which elements of me and my background led to me receiving a reduced offer, which opens up a host of issues in itself
A contextual offer is an attempt to contextualise a student’s achievements, looking at the quality of education, family education level, disability and mental health concerns and whether a student has been in care. They are a huge component in widening access to higher education and broadening the diversity of the student population. Historically white, middle class and often privately educated individuals have made up the overwhelming majority of the student populace in the UK, which leads into these groups dominating the most powerful positions in society.
I received one of these offers, for a competitive course at a Russell Group University, all because I ticked the right socio-economic boxes. I have the utmost respect and appreciation for these measures, but they vary from university to university, and can at times be vague. In fact, I don’t fully understand which elements of me and my background, or information shared with the admissions department by my college or referee that led to me receiving a reduced offer, which opens up a host of issues in itself.
I was stunned by the hostility and lack of understanding from my colleagues
Past gratitude for my reduced offer, I didn’t think much of its implications until I was perhaps a term into my course, settled and friendly with my cohort. While it was evident that my social and educational background varied greatly from the majority of my classmates, it was clear that we were all intelligent and capable students, and so I didn’t think much of it. It was only when entry grades and offers were discussed one day between lectures that I realised my offer was considerably reduced from the average. Again, I was grateful - I know that the contextual offers were brought in for people like me. But I was stunned by the hostility and lack of understanding from my colleagues.
Friends whose families had been able to make huge investments in their education, and had benefited from excellent standards of teaching, who I had never questioned received higher grades than me. They were unable to understand why my educational context had made it harder to get to where we were both sitting. I was shocked by the responses that I had somehow stolen a spot on the course from someone more able, that I had deprived someone of the opportunity that I myself valued so highly. It was these individuals who had never had to contextualise their own privilege and access, who couldn’t understand how the educational landscape could be anything other than equal. It was as though, to some, they had not expected to be academic equals to someone who attended a ‘rough’ school, as though my presence challenged their hard work or the expense of their education.
I began to internalise the idea of my presence being a sign of tokenism - that I was there to tick a box
I knew that this did not come from a place of malice - instead, misunderstanding of the importance of, and measures in place, to enable the widening of participation. But I do believe that these attitudes can have a damming effect on the performance and mental health of other students who have been able to attend university because of these measures. I began to internalise the idea of my presence being a sign of tokenism - that I was there to tick a box, and found myself beginning to invalidate my own achievements and performance. All because it felt as though others believed I didn’t belong. The response of pure invalidation of both ability, and experience by your peers, is extremely hurtful even if not intended. It also feels so easily preventable, but I believe the pressure is on the Universities to be more open about contextual offers on visit days, during applications and in the early days of beginning University. To allow a student to enter university from a perceived back foot, to enter them into an environment where they may be perceived to be less worthy of a space is nothing more than throwing them to the dogs.
The discussion surrounding quotas in the workplace and in academia have often been met with distrust, and so it feels even more crucial to fully educate those at a university level of how and why structures are in place to enable those from a wide range of backgrounds to succeed. In deconstructing the misconceptions regarding widening participation, we can begin to create a culture where success is judged equally, and no one is perceived to have had a free ride. While contextual offers will not be needed for students coming from relative privilege, I believe it is important that they are still aware and informed as to how they work. To keep this information quiet says that that information is not for them, that it does not apply when in fact, it shapes the academic landscape in a way that currently, they cannot even begin to understand. To downplay this information is inherent in invalidating students from less advantaged backgrounds, and as the conversation surrounding race, and to a lesser degree, class, are becoming such key points of discussion, this seems incongruous with the progress we are trying to make.
Universities have a responsibility to show their peers that these students are as desirable for all their wonderful qualities and achievements
The applying student is aware of their context - their peers may project their own perceptions of class, race and status onto their peers, or I think more dangerously, assume they have had the easy route in. At best, it does nothing to improve the divides on university campuses, at worst, it creates hostility and creates a fallacious hierarchy of who ‘deserves’ to be there more.
Universities want to recruit a wider variety of students to their campuses, and it is true that oftentimes, this might be for cynical reasons, like brand-image. But honestly, if contextual offers are present, from my experience I believe that universities must show these students that they have a value beyond a simple statistic or for a most ethnically diverse prospectus. These students and the events or structures that they may have experienced up to their university life should be discussed, and the whole student populace must be informed with the utmost transparency.
Universities have a responsibility to show their peers that these students are as desirable for all their wonderful qualities and achievements. To both celebrate and empathise with the backgrounds of less advantaged students, and make clear that they have not simply been given a free ride. Because these students who make up diversity statistics - they deserve better on a personal level.