Contextual admissions and social justice in selective English higher education institutions

  • Julian Skyrme

Student thesis: Doctor of Education


The policies that higher education institutions (HEIs) operate when choosing whom to select for admission raise profoundly important issues of social justice. Until recently, HEIs in England have selected applicants for admissions offers primarily on predicted and actual examination achievements. However, newer approaches to selection called 'contextual admissions' have emerged in some HEIs that attempt to view the examination achievement of applicants in a wider social context. For example, an increasing number of England's most selective HEIs are prioritising admissions offers to applicants from less advantaged backgrounds, such as state schools students or those living in areas of low participation in higher education (HE). Despite increasing attention by government and HEIs to enhance 'fairness' in admissions through the use of contextual admissions policies, academic studies of this important phenomenon are curious by their absence. Using a policy scholarship approach, this study explores, describes and explains the contextual undergraduate admissions policies of England's most selective HEIs in relation to the concept of social justice. Documentary content analysis of the policies of 20 English universities in the Russell Group is employed to originate an ideal-type classification system for how selective HEIs are enacting social justice through contextual admissions. Drawing principally on the work of Sharon Gewirtz and Alan Cribb, in-depth interviews with senior policy actors and qualitative documentary analysis are used across three purposively selected sites to suggest social justice can be thought about in three ways. Firstly, it is a multi-dimensional concept (having distributive, cultural and associational forms) where different dimensions can conflict with each other. Secondly it is mediated by structural constraints and other norms, which limit the pursuit of justice. Thirdly, it is context- and level-dependent. This study suggests that no philosophical resolution can be found for what counts as social justice in contextual admissions. Instead, justice in admissions should be understood in its real contexts of enactment and through its propensity to provide empirical outcomes in admissions-offers for less advantaged students that are at least equivalent to their more advantaged counterparts. A number of macro, meso and micro-level factors, that enable or constrain the pursuit of just outcomes for less advantaged learners through contextual admissions, are suggested. These provide the basis for a fruitful range of new potential quantitative and qualitative studies by scholars of social justice, stratification and mobility to an important but under-researched area of education policy.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorHelen Gunter (Supervisor) & Carlo Raffo (Supervisor)


  • contextual admissions
  • social justice
  • higher education
  • admissions
  • policy
  • widening participation

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