Contextual admissions should be extended to postgraduates

If we want academia to be more diverse, we need to give students from disadvantaged backgrounds more opportunities to enter, says Comfort A. Moye 

August 11, 2019

This May, the University of Oxford announced its plans to roll out contextual offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in order to increase diversity within the institution. Offering places with lower grade requirements to students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds would indeed balance out the high proportion of public school recruits and widen the pipeline to academia at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. 

However, just as we acknowledge that such students need to be recruited, we must also ask why postgraduate students are left out of the loop in this effort to increase access. According to AdvanceHE, there are just 25 black female and 90 black male professors in the UK compared with 14,000 white males and 4,000 white females. 

These startling figures may come as a shock, but it is little surprise to those who are aware of the large racialised attainment gaps. What’s more, recognition that a racist and ethnocentric curriculum isolates students and that unconscious bias within the academy means poorer outcomes and considerably lower satisfaction rates among black students is not widespread.

While some may be more sceptical and point to differences in aspiration, academia isn’t necessarily a natural career option for black students, who feel disenfranchised and isolated within the academy. Experiences of racial stereotyping, racial micro-aggressions and bullying can traumatise and deter students from embarking on this journey. We also see that black African students outperform white British students at GCSE Level but this begins to invert at A Level and worsen at university despite higher rates of admission to university from the former.

Introducing contextual offers for postgraduate taught students would give many more disadvantaged students access to universities that ordinarily award scholarships based on academic excellence, an approach that discounts the real experiences of racism on campus through curricula, the student experience and degree awards. 

However, contextual offers only tackle part of a complex problem. Finance is another barrier to accessing postgraduate study. Across the UK, a master’s degree can set you back anywhere from £10,000 to £28,000 in tuition alone, without calculating the rising cost of living and commuting. 

With these costs in mind, how feasible is it for the most disadvantaged students to move away from home to pursue further education with little to no financial assistance? The government offers a postgraduate loan of up to £10,000 which isn’t sufficient to pay for many masters programmes plus living costs. In this case, as was suggested at a recent Black Educational Inequalities Event, the introduction of sliding scale fees could improve the study chances for some people. 

Under this model, the most disadvantaged students can expect to pay reduced rates because they will be charged fees based on their household income and other indicators. They’ll benefit from incurring less debt, thus improving their social mobility, while enhancing their career prospects through studying. Alongside this, assistance in the form of travel passes, lunch vouchers and more opportunities to work on campus have been popular among students.

By connecting the dots, we can see why there is a lack of diversity at the higher end of academia: most PhD funding is based on “academic excellence”, which is often based on receiving a distinction grade at the master’s level. 

But talented students from minority backgrounds may be locked out of these opportunities due to circumstances that can hinder academic growth during their undergraduate study, or even before. They may have care responsibilities, live in non-decent housing or have a responsibility to contribute to household finances. Meanwhile, it’s unlikely that they’re able to access tutors or go to a private school and don’t have the crucial social safety nets that more privileged students might. 

More can be done to recognise talent and “academic excellence” through understanding different contexts. Financial support and contextual admissions for postgraduate study can help disadvantaged students go further in their pursuit of knowledge and bring the benefit of much-needed diversity to academia. 

Comfort Moye is pursuing a degree in social anthropology at SOAS University of London and works within the widening participation team.

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