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.

University admissions and the difficulties students face

Earlier this month, The Independent published a piece in which the author complained that her daughter couldn’t get into university.  This was not down to academic underachievement.

The daughter’s current and predicted grades were both credible and she applied to several top universities.  Despite clear potential, she was rejected by them all.  Too many candidates applied for too few positions.

Admissions teams are unable to cope with so many students achieving high grades and they can’t easily distinguish between them.

The sheer number of people vying for a place at uni now results in otherwise worthy students getting turned away.  It happened last year, it’ll happen this year, and it may happen for some years to come.

photo by pasotraspaso

photo by pasotraspaso

The author states:

“I naturally assumed that hard work would pay off and the world would be her oyster. In some ways, it stands against her. Friends of hers who are predicted Bs and Cs in their final A2 exams have had no problem getting places at universities with lower entry requirements.”

Now, I assume those predicted Bs and Cs have been offered conditional places.  While better than rejection, the grades still need to be achieved.  And who says those students are not working as hard as the author’s daughter?  Lower predicted grades aren’t automatically due to a lack of trying.

Whatever the case, I do agree that there are students getting left by the wayside despite consistently good results.

Even worse, for those students offered a place, there are now suggestions that some conditional offers are not being honoured.  Apparently UCAS don’t have a rule that prevents institutions from changing their offer.  I’m not criticising UCAS, but I am concerned that unis could begin ‘moving the goalposts’ as Mike Baker calls it.  That practice is scary, inappropriate and unreasonable.

Where would students be left then?  Would the pressure ever end?  How damaging would it be for a student to get the grades originally required, only to be slapped in the face with the news that it’s still not good enough?

I hope this behaviour isn’t commonplace and I’d like to see a ruling to stop the possibility altogether.

I stick by my thought that waiting until the next year to go to uni isn’t the end of the world.  But it’s a further fudge to a system that’s already facing great difficulty.  At what point does the system collapse entirely?  Woe betide potential students if problems escalate further.

Whatever grades and results a student is predicted, it’s a risk to choose only universities that want those grades or better.  This is especially true if some institutions change their mind over an offer later.  At least one agreeable institution could be chosen with slightly less demanding grades.  It gives more scope for movement at a time when it’s so difficult to find a place through clearing.

It wouldn’t take long for someone with commitment and talent to secure a place somewhere, even if it’s not quite the establishment they wanted.  They may even be able to secure an unconditional place at their preferred place the following year based on the grades they already have.  Always worth pushing for.

Despite all this concern, an unwanted change in plans shouldn’t be viewed as a disaster.  It should be viewed as a compromise.  Live with future hope, not past regrets.