Deputy Viewpoint Editor, Rebecca Holmes, argues that when it comes to increasing diversity on campus, simply re-structuring the admissions process is too little, too late. Instead, she argues, we must actively widen the admissions pool itself.
It’s that time of year again: the rush of registering for a virtual open day, a flurry of panic about personal statements and, ultimately, a chance for each student to show their mettle. However, the consideration of diversity within the admissions process still remains. With the recent criticism over the lack of adequate minority representation within the University’s student body, this year’s cohort will undoubtedly be more aware of it than most. From the circulation of an open letter to Principal Sally Mapstone over summer to the recent BAME nominations for the university court, there has been strong pressure on the University to engage in what is termed “active action” when admitting candidates from BAME backgrounds. Yet, what truly constitutes being “active”? And is it fair to put the onus of encouraging diversity on the University itself?
Even if our admissions programme were to be changed, the underlying systemic racism which plagues our society more broadly would still go unaddressed. Therefore, beyond admissions, what really must be accounted for is the racial diversity of the applicant pool itself, i.e. the cohort of candidates who apply and compete for a place in a particular year. A change in the make-up of this pool may arguably only be achieved over time and, moreover, with the embracing of an increased cosmopolitan outlook. It requires our university and community to work alongside local, national, and international initiatives and policies.
In the aforementioned open letter, the best part of 2,000 affiliates of the University asked that: “active action is taken to ensure that fully-fledged and effective diversity policies are put in place in the University.” This begs the question of whether such action applies to university admissions? Would “active” approaches even work in practice to encourage diversity? If we define active approaches in terms of name-blind applications or stricter quota systems, then we must recognise that these methods for consciously pursuing more minority-background students have faced criticisms in the past – so much so, that I believe it’s not feasible for a university to pursue such policies today.
Firstly, being conscious of race in admissions is problematic. St Andrews could, hypothetically, adopt a name-blind application system in order to curb the institutional racism which has been so thoroughly brought to our attention in the last few months. On the surface, such a policy may appear effective when it comes to eradicating the bias found in admissions processes (in 2018, UCAS found that black students were 21 times more likely to have their application investigated simply because of their name). However, despite being the better or preferred student on name-blind paper, the applicant may still face discrimination at a face-to-face interview, the final step before an offer is given in the case of some courses. Thus, name-blind application systems alone may fail to go far enough if we want to effect real change. This was made evident by a 2017 UCAS trial across 6 universities which found name-blind applications caused little change in diversity at these institutions.
The more radical “active” option that I’ve often heard mentioned during discussions on this topic is a quota system which would give preferential treatment on the grounds of race during the admissions process. While this would certainly increase diversity in admissions quickly, this option is clearly unfeasible, not to mention illegal in the UK. If St Andrews was to start actively quantifying their intake of students from minority backgrounds, who is to say what is the ‘right’ number of students from a specific background? A quota could even detract from the merits of a certain university place or even be considered discriminatory itself as taking into account race as a factor during admissions requires it as a component to be actively searched for in applicants. Beyond this, it could also be unsustainable for minority students and their own individual identity as they are accepted based on a characteristic which is beyond their own control, and this could have wide ranging implications for their own university experience.
These “active” approaches and their shortfalls suggest to me that the responsibility to improve and foster greater diversity within St Andrews is not the University’s responsibility alone. “Active” approaches to admissions will not remove the inherent stigmas of our society but, instead, confirm them, which is why universities have not resorted to these measures regarding this issue. If the University wants to impact real change, the work must begin before the admissions process: working at a national level to prioritise and promote diversity and overall BAME representation in the applicant pool itself first in order to, subsequently, increase the chances of minority students gaining entry during the admissions process without “active” measures needing to be implemented.
The new Student Graduate Route visa programme provides a credible in-road for diversifying the student applicant pool. This route includes a “post-study” work visa which will allow current student visa holders to stay and work in the UK for up to two years after they graduate. This will come into force for international students graduating in summer 2021. In my opinion, this has the potential to encourage a greater international pool of BAME students to apply to our universities in the first place. There is no cap on the number of international students allowed to apply to this scheme, so it resolves any need for a quota and its detrimental consequences. Instead of actively recruiting diversity in admissions themselves, we have a shared task alongside other universities to champion and promote this new visa policy if we want to show that we are truly committed to increasing diversity.
As for the domiciled UK BAME population, Widening Participation schemes like the First Chances Foundation and Senior Phase for underrepresented groups and minority students have effected real change in regards to increasing access to higher education and these efforts should not go unnoticed. In collaborating with schools and colleges, the University is widening the pool of students who will consider an application and such support allows those from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter the applicant pool on their own merits. If St Andrews, alongside other universities, continues to expand its work with government, colleges, and perhaps even firms and businesses to encourage diversity and social mobility at a younger age, this will enrich the applicant pool. As a result, admissions would have a much increased chance of recruiting from BAME backgrounds.
I understand that the initial point at which the University is able to accept individuals from a BAME background is during the admissions process and that this process significantly impacts not just the cultural and racial makeup of the university for the subsequent academic year but also the range of societies, cultural variety, and viewpoints which circulate, and mold the town’s atmosphere thereafter. However, the University itself should not be criticized too harshly in the demands for urgent “active action” within the context of their own admissions process. This is a wider issue that requires action to be taken with the help of other educational bodies and Government. Reconstituting the admissions process is not the answer. Instead, we must actively change the steps prior to admission, namely in widening the applicant pool.