Why Bias Begins Long Before University Applications

How much applicant information do you need to remove before university admissions lose all bias?

Trick question. There’s always some sort of bias.

Anything attempting to level the playing field is better than nothing, but inequalities cannot be removed as easily as removing a name, or grades, or an institution.

As with Deloitte’s decision to ignore which university applicants studied at, the removal of names from UCAS forms is positive, but there is more to consider.

As Vikki Boliver says in The Conversation:

“Admissions selectors will still see each applicant’s home address, the school they attended, what they have written about themselves in their personal statement and what their teacher has written about them in their reference. All of this may provide subliminal clues as to an applicant’s ethnic and social background. Where applicants are interviewed as part of the selection process, the scope for unconscious bias becomes wider still.”

Social background can make a huge difference to applications. Lauren Rivera, author of “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs“, explains:

“Whether intentionally or not, elite parents expose their children to different experiences and styles of interacting that are useful for getting ahead in society.” – [SOURCE]

In exactly the areas where people are meant to stand out, some find it easier to do than others. Inequality starts early and may not even be deliberate. People want to do the best they can for their children with the resources they have access to.

Those with a disadvantaged upbringing in some way are less likely to succeed in using the systems in place to build an impressive personal statement. And if they do manage to attend their university of choice and graduate, there are further hurdles to cross in creating CVs and making job applications.

For example, extra-curricular activities are often dropped in favour of getting the academic work done. Rivera has studied this too and she believes there should be “less weight [given] to extracurricular activities” as they are “a huge source of class inequality whether it’s in university admissions or in interviews”.

Striving for a First gets in the way of making do with a 2:1 while building up other achievements and industry experience. Yet these differences are what employers differentiate on.

When it comes to making name- and qualification-blind decisions, it may appear over time that the same people as before are getting the university places and job offers.

The danger here is that some people may see this as proof that some people are naturally more accomplished than others. They will conclude that the cream really does rise to the top.

If a lack of change is apparent, that doesn’t mean these new approaches to university and job applications will have failed. But it will show that applications are not the original source of inequality. Bias begins long before university applications. There are many variables, which begin much earlier in life and can be difficult to overcome.

Becoming A Masterful Graduate: Class, Strategy and Playing ‘The Game’

Becoming A Masterful Graduate: Class, Strategy and Playing 'The Game'

“They have nobody to blame but themselves.”
“If they don’t put in the work, they don’t deserve to get anywhere.”

Comments like these assume that people have a great strategy worked out and simply choose not to bother using it.

These comments also assume that mistakes were made on a level playing field. The only possible reason for underachievement must be laziness and lack of trying. Fault is made to look totally one-sided.

It’s true that you should take responsibility for your actions. But life doesn’t operate on a constant, level playing field. Comparisons are rarely helpful.

Taking personal responsibility isn’t the one difference between success and lack of it. Matters out of your current field of vision and understanding can limit your mindset, even when you are (unknowingly) capable.


When something is out of your current field of vision, it’s time to get strategic.

At school, I jumped through hoops without understanding why. It was only when I realised I could be acting more fruitfully, MUCH more fruitfully, that I crafted a different path. I had made my initial UCAS application for all the wrong reasons and had focused in areas that would not have suited me.

In fact, at that time, university of any kind wouldn’t have suited me. I needed to make a leap. And it took a whole new set of experiences to show me the way.

I’m so thankful that so much changed in the incredible year between leaving Sixth Form and going to university. That in-between year still involved a lot of Sixth Form and university. But I managed, luckily, to change the game.

‘The game’ is all about strategy. Ciaran Burke’s new book, Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures: Degrees of Class, explores the problematic relationships between social class and graduate achievement.

Through a series of graduate interviews, Burke found that future career strategies are heavily impacted by early social and class experiences. He explains that individuals tend to feel in control of their destiny, yet appear to follow certain patterns depending on their class grouping.

Burke states:

“A common theme within much social policy, pertaining to social mobility, is individual responsibility…Social mobility policy needs to approach the issue more holistically, considering inequalities between groups rather than seeing it as a working-class problem; as Payne (2012) comments, low social mobility should not be understood solely as the working class failing to enter the middle class but the middle class, effectively, keeping them out.”

These issues, Burke argues, are not properly addressed in policy, which has led to “contradictions and limitations within policy narratives“. His work describes the need for widening participation and social mobility to be discussed with a more sociological approach. He suggests that some documents, such as Alan Milburn’s Unleashing Aspiration, come close, but “do not make the leap”.

Jo Johnson’s recent speech as minister for universities and science included the commitment to double the entry rate of those from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020, compared to 2009 levels. However, greater access to university is just the start. Johnson also explained that UCAS will publish data and analysis regarding protected and disadvantaged groups. While this information will be useful in assessing applications, Burke’s findings appear to suggest that widening participation does not turn into social mobility and a guarantee of increased success off the back of securing a degree. Other strategies that must be uncovered to help these students, once they graduate, to understand not only what is within their grasp, but also how to firmly grasp it.

In a Times Higher Education review of Burke’s book, Huw Morris concludes:

What Burke’s book reveals to this reviewer is, first, the need to help young people and their families gain a better understanding of “the game” of graduate social mobility, and, second, the part that employers could play in rewriting the rules of a process that is becoming more costly and less like a game.

Better understanding of ‘the game’ is needed in order to improve the “field of the possibles” because Burke states that there is a “cap limiting what the working-class respondents understand themselves to be capable of achieving“.

Blinkered to the 'field of the possibles' can limit capability.

Being blinkered to the ‘field of the possibles’ can limit capability.

To overcome artificial limits, therefore, greater emphasis is needed on improving strategy.

For instance, Burke states that working-class students believe that an institution’s reputation “will increase their chances of securing graduate employment“. But middle-class students are playing the game differently: “The middle-class graduates understand the situation and read for their degree based on the merits of the individual course; they appreciate it is that course that will increase their ability to find a graduate job, not the presumed institutional capital.

I believe strategy goes far beyond the merits of a course too. University isn’t about a course, it’s not about grades, it’s not about social life, it’s not about engaging in seminars, it’s not about joining societies, it’s not about making friends, it’s not about writing essays, and it’s not about learning to be independent.

University is about all these things.

And so much more than that.

I see three big-picture terms within the strategy:

  1. Mastery – Move beyond learning the minimum. Basic expectations are there to be surpassed, not followed on the dot.
  2. Narrative – Explaining what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and where you’re going. Describing how you’ve mastered pertinent skills and why it matters. Signalling your achievements so they make sense to those who need to know.
  3. Self-imposed limits – Not self-imposed beliefs, but a conscious decision to focus on a small number of concentrated areas. It’s a cycle, because these self-imposed limits help you to achieve mastery and to form a narrative that’s exciting and makes sense.

As you develop your strategy, it becomes easier to take action. And once you take action, bit by bit, you discover more. You learn new things that you thought would remain a mystery your entire life. Discoveries that go way beyond your degree.

It could be how to play the instrument that you always wanted to enjoy. Or how to organise your life without breaking into a sweat…How to network like a champion…How to start a movement…How to work with others.

Social mobility goes beyond getting a degree. Access to university is one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Even if access to higher education never was an issue, it doesn’t help to simply feel entitled, as Burke explains in his book. To be the student you deserve to be, assumptions–both humble and grand–only serve to get in the way. As with coursework, there are no marks for assuming without putting in the research and experimentation.

The playing field isn’t level. That’s why strategy is so important. When I realised this, it changed my perception. Not only did more seem possible, but the work involved also felt less of an uphill struggle.

You’ve probably heard people say that because they were able to achieve a certain goal, it follows that anyone could achieve it. “If *I* can do it, anyone can!”

While there may be some truth in that, it’s too simplistic to see that as sufficient proof and motivation to guarantee success. More work must be done on developing strategic mindsets. More people need to be aware that they’re playing the game. When that’s apparent, people will also have a more conscious choice over how they wish to play it.


How Can Higher Education Best Provide Value (For Money)?

How Can Higher Education Best Provide Value (For Money)?

Value for money is a pesky thing. Students, even seasoned graduates, will be hard pressed to assess the precise value of their degree. What you get from your university experience goes far beyond campus and can take many years to realise. The potential benefits are ongoing.

And while some graduates gain immediate benefit from their degree study, others don’t see much to boast over until much later in life.

If value is a subjective work in progress over a long period of time, are students in a position to understand and assess the full picture to gaining value for money? Getting the desired grade is possibly preferred over getting challenged academically. By this token, is value for money too subjective on too many levels?

This is uncomfortable at a time when policy makers must consider the needs of students from not only an educational perspective, but also a consumer one. Perhaps it’s no wonder that institutions haven’t had much incentive to innovate further in teaching. Too much risk for not enough apparent gain.

I am a big fan of seeing universities highlight their unique traits, rather than attempting to speak for everyone. They can innovate to help students tell a convincing story that shapes future choices and success. In doing so, more graduates will retain positive links with their alma mater. The more I have thought about it, the more I see the strength in continuing bonds between an institution and its past students. More can always be done regarding this.

Finding Where Value Comes From

While universities should find every opportunity to promote access to resources and exclusive services as part of the student package, what happens outside of the university’s control is also a vital part of ensuring students see value. Perceptions that anything outside the academic work is merely circumstantial and outside the remit of fees is missing the point, regardless of how true that is. After all, policy has brought the situation to this stage, which somewhat forces matters in this direction. As long as this continues to be the case, institutions must work within the framework around them.

Essentially, fees and loans are difficult (certainly in their current guise) to link with improving and building innovation in teaching. Students already find value for money a difficult concept to grasp and are more likely to question value than to assume it. In effect, universities are not best placed to take risky leaps in teaching, regardless of how it should benefit students. Even if these innovations are made and are a resounding success in an institution’s eyes, will students see things the same way? Failure to translate at just one stage in the process could be dangerous for the provider implementing the strategy:

“…students are often not equipped to provide an informed and meaningful response to research about innovative pedagogy, especially when it involves emerging technology.” – [Considering the Smartphone Learner]

Many innovative strategies have already been made and 2012 fee reforms have brought “minimal innovation in teaching and learning“. So while the higher education sector is one which does not stand still when it comes to innovation, we should expect a slow and steady progression. Do we look to MOOCs and private providers for the latest exciting developments? Yes and no. Changes come through from all directions, but don’t assume the next big thing is a guaranteed success, nor the game-changing sector-reshaper that some hype up in hope.

Perhaps we can look at the NMC Horizon report at what they predict the future to be. However, as the regularly on-point Stephen Downes and Audrey Watters have already said, the Horizon report doesn’t look back to previous predictions and the new predictions appear to have a lot of emphasis on popular media ideas of what’s to come.

Finding it Difficult to Innovate Further

Let’s imagine for a moment that the heads of one university decide to make bold moves to separate themselves from the rest (even popular predictions, perhaps!) and turn the diversity knob to 11. They’ll soon hit a quality assurance snag since “processes are usually connected to demands for accountability, [so] risk-taking is likely to suffer in favour of ‘playing it safe'” [Source]. Guess what? Management soon decide to use the term ‘innovation’ to mean ‘better’. Much easier, that way.

In this example, I say ‘heads of one university’. Does institution matter to innovation? See point 33 of HEFCE’s Business Plan for 2015-2020:

“We are looking to develop innovative approaches that are risk-based, proportionate, affordable and low-burden. Any new arrangements must build on established strengths and good practice, and reflect the values and cultures of higher education. In fulfilling our statutory responsibilities with regard to quality assessment we have always relied on institutions’ own robust quality assurance systems, as part of co-regulation. We will continue to do so.”

What is the scope of innovative approaches that are risk-based, proportionate, affordable and low-burden? Would these initiatives be the same regardless of institution, or would impact vary? Are established strengths institution-based or indicative of the wider HE sector? This all makes a difference.

Another variable is the scope you give to innovation. How broadly does it reach? According to Graham Gibbs in HEA’s ‘Implications of “Dimensions of Quality” in a market environment‘:

“Funding for innovation, both within institutions and by national bodies, should be targetted on programmes rather than on modules and on the involvement of entire programme teams rather than on individuals.” – p.10

All in all it appears that some change could be made:

  • In analytics;
  • Through greater recognition of teaching;
  • Toward more general targets as opposed to more focused areas.

But we have already seen that much innovation has already been taking place and it does not mean that students gain the ability to grasp value for money through these new practices.

Finding the Right Perception of Value

Which brings us back to consumerist attitudes to higher education. Andrew McGettigan covers this well in The Great University Gamble. He states that HE is “not currently amenable to normal consumer experience…the benefits of the product often do not become clear during ‘consumption’ but only later, well after study has finished“.

This is echoed by Joanna Williams:

“As students are not, by definition, in possession of all the specific content to be covered they are perhaps not best placed to pass pedagogical judgement. Instead, many students equate value for money with contact time with teaching staff…Value for money may also be equated with success: if students are rated highly by their lecturers they are gaining value for money, if they receive low marks, they are not. ‘The majority of complaints were about academic status, i.e. students’ degree passes’ (Garner 2009).” [p.174]

Even when you put these arguments to one side, another challenging question arises.

Are students comparing value for money between different institutions?

This isn’t particularly feasible. The inability to compare value is problematic, since there is no way of telling whether a resounding success would have been many times more successful had a person attended a different university as a student. How would their life have differed? Also, what would the definition of ‘value for money’ be in this case? Value isn’t just subjective, it’s entirely hypothetical in nature. The only comparison that can be made is between the money spent on a degree (plus other costs) and the subsequent monetary return made that would not have been possible without that degree.

That’s why value for money in education is so pesky. And the perception of value changes over time. It’s valuable when we say so, on our terms. And if someone begs to differ, they are well within their rights to do so for that very reason.

What does value for money look like to you?

TUB-Talk – 28 March 2015

This week sees another test recording for TUB-Talk, with a weekly news drop.

Direct link to Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/universityboy/tub-talk-2015-03-28

As I say before the show starts, I’ll be pushing out a student show and a staff show, so I’d love to hear what you’d want out of an HE podcast. Would you like interviews, advice, news, opinion?

Let me know what would be of help and interest so I can make TUB-Talk just right for you.

Thanks for all the feedback so far. Keep it coming!

Here are the links to the stories mentioned in the podcast:

Social attitudes and tuition fees

Wonkhe – http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/british-social-attitudes-survey-3-in-4-people-support-tuition-fees/
British Social Attitudes Survey (HE) – http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/38917/bsa32_highereducation.pdf

Sir Patrick Stewart stepping down

Huddersfield Daily Examiner – http://www.examiner.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/sir-patrick-stewart-step-down-8931509
BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-32086234

The consequences of cramming and all-nighters

The Tab Leicester – http://leicester.tab.co.uk/2015/03/25/this-warwick-graduate-did-his-entire-dissertation-in-one-forty-hour-sitting/
Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11497143/Teens-cram-revision-into-one-night-survey-says.html

Low drop-out figures

Times Higher Education – http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/drop-out-rate-remains-at-record-low/2019319.article

Value for money

Impact – http://www.impactnottingham.com/2015/03/is-your-course-challenging-you-impact-investigates/
Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11490809/Cost-of-a-degree-is-not-worth-it-says-Oxford-bursar.html

Schools, universities and employers building stronger relationships

Association of Graduate Recruiters – http://www.agr.org.uk/The-AGR-Manifesto

The library is my new jam

Oxford, Sounds of the Bodleian – https://www.ox.ac.uk/soundsofthebodleian/
David Kernohan on Twitter – https://twitter.com/dkernohan/status/581451309930414080