Oxford to consider socioeconomic data in PhD applications

Pilot scheme to promote diversity in doctoral study will also include anonymisation of applications

September 23, 2020
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Tutors at the University of Oxford will examine information on the socioeconomic background of applicants for several PhD programmes as part of a drive to diversify admissions.

As part of a pilot scheme covering five doctoral training programmes across science and medicine, Oxford will also take steps to anonymise admissions by removing the names and gender pronouns from applications before they are reviewed.

The socioeconomic indicators that will be examined by admissions staff under the pilot, which will apply to applications for entry in autumn 2021, include whether UK applicants received free school meals at secondary school or the average take-up of free school meals at their school – measures typically used in assessing undergraduate applications.

These indicators could be useful to assess an individual’s academic potential beyond their performance at undergraduate level, said Stuart Conway, professor of organic chemistry at Oxford. “Some students are working to support themselves throughout university – they will be on an upward trajectory if they are applying to us, but they may not have seen the full results [of what they can achieve],” he said.

Having access to these indicators may also level the playing field for poorer applicants who may not have been able to take up research placements that look attractive on CVs, said Gail Preston, director of the Interdisciplinary Bioscience doctoral training partnership.

“Many applicants will spend their summers going to different research groups and getting research experience, but others find it hard to do this,” said Professor Preston, who hoped these considerations would encourage those without extensive research experience to apply.

The anonymisation efforts are part of an attempt to ensure a more equal gender balance in the candidates selected for interview and ensure students from ethnic minorities do not face discrimination, mirroring recent moves to anonymise undergraduate applications.

“It is quite a work-intensive process, but we don’t really need someone’s name when they are applying,” explained Professor Conway, who said the use of anonymisation at postdoctoral level on his Wellcome Trust-funded Chemistry in Cells programme had led to a more gender-balanced pool of applicants, interviewees and, ultimately, those appointed.

“The first time you read an anonymised CV, you intuitively try to guess whether it is a man or a woman, but you stop doing this quite quickly,” Professor Conway told Times Higher Education, adding that: “It feels quite odd now to read a CV with this kind of information.”

Professor Conway said he hoped anonymised CVs would encourage more ethnic minority students to apply to Oxford for postgraduate study. “We had a few people come up to us at open days, saying they didn’t think Oxford was for them, but this kind of thing showed we are taking these issues seriously,” he said.

Applicants will also fill in standardised forms, rather than submitting their own CVs, added Professor Preston, who said this move would give selectors “fairer and more consistent” information about an applicant’s ability.

“Some applicants leave out information that we would like to know about, while others have greater support when filling out these applications,” she said.

The scheme follows recent efforts to improve postgraduate diversity, including the creation of paid research internships at Oxford, a scheme that was due to take 100 students and graduates this summer before it was moved online because of coronavirus.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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