Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Why Do Elite Universities Admit So Few Ethnic Minority Applicants?

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by Schools Improvement Net:

Writing in the Guardian, Durham University lecturer Vikki Boliver argues that, with Russell Group making offers to 55% of white applicants but 23% of black ones, they must open up their data to scrutiny …

… This under-representation of British ethnic minority students at elite UK universities is being investigated as part of an all-party parliamentary inquiry led by David Lammy MP. We will all be watching to see its recommendations and the universities’ response.

So far, the universities have tended to put the onus for these figures on ethnic minority applicants themselves. Offer rates are so much lower for ethnic minority applicants, the universities argue, because they are less likely to achieve the required grades in the right subjects at A-level, and because they are more likely to choose degree courses that are heavily oversubscribed.

Let’s be clear about what the evidence does and doesn’t show in relation to each of these points.

First, while average A-level achievement is indeed lower for some (but not all) ethnic minority groups compared to the white groups, several published studies, including my own, have shown that ethnic group disparities in offer rates remain even after A-level grades have been taken into account, and that these disparities are substantial even among applicants with outstanding A-levels.

Second, there simply isn’t any hard evidence to support or refute the claim that ethnic minority applicants are less likely to have the right combination of A-level subjects for their chosen course. Despite its repeated assertion, this hypothesis has yet to be tested.

Third, while ethnic minorities do apply disproportionately for some of the most oversubscribed degree courses, this does not wholly explain why these applicants have lower offer rates, as Oxford University recently acknowledged.

There is much that we still do not know about why offer rates vary so much. But a major obstacle to a fuller understanding is that university admissions data is not available for independent scrutiny.

External researchers have only ever been allowed partial access to the national university admissions database maintained by Ucas - information about applicants’ GCSE grades and A-level predictions, for example, have routinely been withheld.

But recently Ucas took the unprecedented step of refusing all requests from external researchers for individual-level data, in effect stifling efforts to independently evaluate the extent of fair access to UK universities.

It seems incredible that admissions data is not openly available for proper analysis. Universities continue to receive large sums of public money (the total HEFCE grant for 2014-15 is some £3.9bn), and the law requires universities to ensure that they do not discriminate against applicants on grounds such as ethnicity.

Given this, surely admissions data should be accessible so that universities can be held to account for the decisions they make …

Vikki Boliver is a lecturer in sociology in the school of applied social sciences at Durham University.

Any valid reasons you are aware of or can think of why this data isn’t available for scrutiny? Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter …

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