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UCAS disputes accusations of discriminaton in admissions offers

ByCoen Van de Ven

Oct 1, 2015
Image: Flikr: 'Alberto G'

prominent professor has accused prestigious British universities of inequality, citing discrimination against minority groups during application processes, and sparking a row with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

Dr Vikki Boliver, Deputy Head of School (Research) and Senior Lecturer at Durham University, said that the UK’s most competitive higher education institutions lack diversity.

Boliver analysed more than 151,000 applications to the prestigious Russell Group universities, which include the University of Edinburgh

She came to the conclusion that 54.7 per cent of ‘white applications’ resulted in an offer, while black applicants had a success rate of 21.9 per cent.

Pakistani students had a 30.3 per cent chance, while students with an Indian background had the highest proportion of successful applications among minority groups with 43.1 per cent.

In her study, Boliver suggests that, in striving to create an ethnic mix in universities, admissions decisions may be based on the names seen on application forms.

Responding to questions from The Student, she explained: “It is a possibility that admissions selectors are unconsciously biased against ethnic minority applicants, but this possibility needs to be explored with qualitative research.”

Meanwhile, UCAS felt compelled to respond with its own study on 18  September, saying that, “offer rates to ethnic groups are close to expected values”.

The UCAS study shows large differences, sometimes reaching 15 per cent, between the amount of offers given to white applicants and students who belong to minority groups.

According to UCAS’s Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook, this gap is just a matter of picking your courses carefully: “What is clear is that the white group of applicants are more likely to ‘play it safe’ with their choices, selecting courses where the offer-rate is higher.  In contrast, the choices of some other ethnic groups – with the same set of predicted grades – tend to be more ambitious, and to courses with lower offer rates.”

Shortly after UCAS’s publication, Boliver criticised the conclusion and the study. She identified the leaving out of all applications with an October deadline as an issue. The early-deadline-applications contain all the signups for highly competitive courses such as medicine, dentistry, and veterinary, as well as all Cambridge and Oxford courses.

Boliver stated: “I think that it is quite likely that UCAS’s results would look quite different if they had not excluded applicants to Oxbridge and Medicine and those predicted three A-Stars.”

A UCAS spokesperson told The Student that: “Mixing October and January deadline applicants is simply not a like-for-like comparison and – in our view – those differences can’t be securely controlled out.”

Regarding the possibility of unconscious bias in class selections, the UCAS spokesperson said: “Universities are responsible for their own admissions policies, not UCAS.” According to him, UCAS is committed to the topic and recently developed data services wherein ethnical information is anonymised.”

Dr Boliver responded positively to the development: “Anonymising UCAS forms might help,” she told The Student, “but statistical monitoring is also needed.”

Image: Flickr: ‘Alberto G.

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