Russell Group universities ‘unfairly rejecting ethnic minority students’

Study suggests BME students could be missing out on places because institutions are trying to shape ethnic mix

August 20, 2015
Male university student listening to seminar
Source: Getty
Shut out: ethnic inequalities in admissions widened as the percentage of ethnic minority applicants to a course increased

Some of the UK’s most selective universities may be unlawfully rejecting applications from ethnic minority students as they strive to recruit cohorts that are more representative of the wider population, an academic claims.

Vikki Boliver’s analysis of more than 151,000 applications to Russell Group institutions between 2010-11 and 2012-13 found that, while 54.7 per cent of applications submitted by white students resulted in offers, the success rates for black and minority ethnic students were considerably lower. They were as low as 21.9 per cent for applications from students with a black African background, 30.3 per cent for students of Pakistani heritage and 43.1 per cent for applicants with an Indian background.

Dr Boliver, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Durham University, says that the disparity cannot be fully explained by prior academic attainment or ethnic minority students’ tendency to choose courses that are more competitive, since they remain less likely to be accepted once these factors are controlled for.

What Dr Boliver finds, according to an article in Sociology, is that ethnic inequalities in admissions widened as the percentage of ethnic minority applicants to a course increased.

She says that, while white candidates applied to degree subject areas where ethnic minorities made up less than one-fifth of all applicants on average, ethnic minority students applied to programmes where ethnic minorities typically made up about one-third of applicants.

An increase in the percentage of ethnic minority applicants to a course improved the odds of a white applicant receiving an offer, while it reduced the chances of success for most ethnic minority students, with the effect becoming more pronounced as the percentage of ethnic minority applicants became more substantial.

Dr Boliver suggests that some admissions tutors could have been trying to shape the ethnic mix of their cohort with the goal of “ultimate representativeness”. Although selectors are not given information about the ethnicity of applicants, they are probably able to deduce many students’ backgrounds from their names and other information on their Ucas forms, she says.

“A plausible explanation for the observed pattern is that, consciously or unconsciously, some admissions selectors are unfairly rejecting some ethnic minority applicants in order to achieve an entering class with an ethnic mix that is ultimately representative of, say, the wider national population,” Dr Boliver says. “Because ethnic minorities apply in disproportionately high numbers for certain courses at certain institutions, the goal of ultimate representativeness is inevitably at odds with a concern for equal treatment during the admissions process.”

Such an approach would be “highly problematic”, Dr Boliver says, and not just because it would be contrary to equalities legislation. For example, would universities be better off making individual courses representative, or their entire student body? And what should be the model – the local population, or the national one?

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said that admissions staff looked at a “range of information” to judge an applicant’s suitability, not just grades, and that significant progress had been made in black and ethnic minority recruitment.

She highlighted that Dr Boliver’s study did not take into account the entry requirements of specific courses, and whether students had taken A levels in specific subjects required for admission.

“Ensuring our doors are wide open to able students from all backgrounds really matters to Russell Group universities,” Dr Piatt said. “Our institutions are fair and treat each individual application on its own merits.”

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