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Reconceptualising fair access to highly academically selective universities, Higher Education

Boliver, V. and Banerjee, P. and Gorard, S. and Powell, M. (2022) 'Reconceptualising fair access to highly academically selective universities, Higher Education.', Higher education., 84 (1). pp. 85-100.


The higher education regulators for England have set challenging new widening access targets requiring universities to rethink “ how merit is judged in admissions” (OfS 2018: 8). Universities are being encouraged to move away from the traditional meritocratic equality of opportunity model of fair access, which holds that university places should go to the most highly qualified candidates irrespective of social background, in accordance with the principles of procedural fairness. Instead, they must move towards what we term the meritocratic equity of opportunity model, which holds that prospective students’ qualifications should be judged in light of the socioeconomic circumstances in which these were obtained, to enhance distributive fairness. Here, we critically discuss the theoretical underpinnings of these two competing perspectives on fair access and review the existing empirical evidence base created as part of our ESRC-study of widening participation, for the first time. We argue that reconceptualising fair access in terms of distributive fairness rather than procedural fairness offers a more socially just set of principles on which to allocate valuable but scarce places at the most academically selective universities. This is until/unless the level of selection between higher education institutions within the higher education system is reduced or eliminated.

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Date accepted:18 August 2021
Date deposited:24 August 2021
Date of first online publication:06 September 2021
Date first made open access:09 September 2021

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