Widening access policy has historically focused on tackling the socioeconomic barriers to university access faced by prospective students from under-represented groups, but increasingly policy makers are seeking to also address the barriers to wider access posed by undergraduate admissions policies. In this vein, the Scottish Government has recently called upon universities to set separate academic entry requirements for socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants which recognise that “the school attainment of disadvantaged learners often does not reflect their full potential” and which better reflect the minimum needed to succeed in higher education. In this paper, we draw on in-depth interviews with admissions personnel at eighteen Scottish universities to explore the scope for more progressive admissions policies of this kind in light of universities’ identities as organisations and in light of corresponding organisational strategies for position-taking in global and national higher education fields. We present a theoretical model and an empirical illustration of three hierarchically-ordered ideal types of organisational identity—globally competitive, nationally selective, and locally transformative—and show that the more dominant of these tend to constrain the development of more progressive admissions policies. This is because globally competitive and, to a lesser extent, nationally selective organisational identities are understood to require admission of the ‘brightest and best’, conceptualised as those with the highest levels of prior academic attainment who can be expected to succeed at university and beyond as a matter of course. We conclude that universities must recognise and redress the implicitly exclusionary nature of their organisational identities if genuine progress on widening access is to be made.
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