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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Admissions tutors’ perspectives on widening access to selective STEM degrees

by Eliel Cohen, Camille Kandiko Howson and Julianne Viola

This blog follows a project supported by the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund, involving interviews with admissions tutors and staff in department-based admissions decisions in STEM fields at Imperial College London, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the three most selective higher education institutions in England. A project report for the full study is available here

Admissions decisions at more selective universities are often made ‘locally’, that is by disciplinary-based academics who will likely be directly involved in teaching students. Given such autonomy, we join Steven Jones, Dave Hall and Joanna Bragg in foregrounding localised admissions practices as key sites of study for understanding widening participation practices and outcomes. In March and April 2020 we conducted eight interviews with individuals holding admissions tutor (or similar) roles in STEM courses at three elite English universities (the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London).

This post summarises key findings, emphasising that admissions tutors’ perceptions, priorities and practices are often disjointed and disconnected from wider institutional and national policies, grounded in a conservative ethos which slows down the widening of access to selective STEM degrees.

There is fairness and there is ‘fairness’

Fairness was a key theme in our interviews, with all but one participant using the word ‘fair’ or ‘fairness’ explicitly when discussing the key principles of admissions. However, ‘fairness’ tended to have two main meanings which not only differed from but could actively contradict each other. Marginson discusses these contrasting notions of fairness in access to higher education in terms of the competing philosophical traditions to which they relate, drawing on the likes of John Rawls and Amartya Sen. Our findings more closely match the more procedure-focused tradition that Marginson identifies as ‘equity as fairness’, as opposed to the more outcomes focused tradition of ‘equity as inclusion’.

The first and dominant view referred to equal treatment of applicants. This procedural meaning of fairness is not an end in itself but more a means towards ensuring that other admissions priorities were achieved consistently and transparently. First among these was identifying and admitting those applicants with the greatest ‘potential’. We found strong evidence of what has elsewhere been referred to as the potential-based perspective amongst our participants, who consistently used words like ‘high-potential’, ‘high-ability’, or simply ‘the best’ to describe the kinds of students they prioritised and targeted in admissions.

This notion of fairness as a characteristic of procedures which will unproblematically reveal the ‘best’ applicants not only differs from, but can undermine the secondary notion of fairness, one grounded in social justice – in other words, fairness in terms of greater equality of outcomes regardless of one’s background. Some of our participants exhibited at least implicit awareness that there was a potential contradiction between these two notions of fairness, since it is often difficult to see the potential in applicants from less advantaged backgrounds.

On the whole, participants did not see widening participation as a top priority, feeling that there were limits to the extent to which they should be using their role and finite resources to address social inequalities.

Disconnect between admissions policy and practice

The widening participation agenda of the past two decades, and especially the more recent focus on contextualised admissions, implies a shift in admissions practices. Perhaps most obviously it suggests an approach which no longer simply prioritises and privileges those students with easily demonstrable ‘potential’ but rather assesses all applicants’ attainments and abilities in light of the very different contexts in which they have been brought up and educated.

However, what became clear in our interviews was that admissions tutors’ actions and decisions are rarely grounded in the widening participation goals announced by governing bodies and institutional Access and Participation Plans (APP). Rather, in most cases they fell back on what seemed appropriate to their own local context. This resulted in practices which, although sometimes innovative and effective, were disjointed and disconnected from broader widening participation policies and sometimes even counter to them.

For example, some participants said that they might prioritise applicants based on their gender, nationality (but not ethnicity) or age in order to improve the perceived ‘balance’ in their localised cohort, despite no official policies asking them to do so. Other participants felt that any consideration of gender (and protected characteristics more generally) was inappropriate and potentially unlawful.

While we are sympathetic about an interest in a balanced cohort, our findings highlight that admissions decisions are sometimes made on the basis of localised and idiosyncratic perceptions and priorities rather than institutional or national policy. It is not clear, for example, whether a marginal offer would be more likely made to an applicant whose background contributed to perceived ‘cohort balance’ or to an applicant from a widening participation background.

Risk-aversion and the need for data and evaluation

Although all participants expressed support for widening participation in general, they were generally risk-averse in terms of how far they felt widening participation should go. For example, most of our participants were actively or even strongly against lowering grade offers for widening participation students. This view was justified in various ways, for example in terms of concerns about the need to maintain standards of the students and the curriculum, the perceived ‘extra support’ that students admitted on such a basis may require, and the concern that such students would be more likely to perform poorly or drop out. These views were despite an absence of evidence that students admitted on a contextual basis performed worse than other students. This risk-aversion or conservative ethos seems to be a common response to localised admissions decision making.

However, some of our participants acknowledged that one thing preventing them from being able to overcome this risk-aversion was a lack of data monitoring the performance of widening participation students, ideally broken down to the level of students admitted partially on the basis of widening participation and contextual information. Anecdotally, we have reason to believe that this would show that more could be done to widen access, including the increase of lower contextualised offers, without it affecting standards. If nothing else, these data could support evaluation of outcomes of specific admissions practices.

Admissions in England in 2020 were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever new models or workarounds may emerge in the future, evidence suggests that there will continue to be a role for relatively autonomous admissions tutors in selective institutions. Our findings suggest that the sector needs to reflect on how to account for the institutionally situated perceptions and behaviours of admissions tutors if it is going to continue its widening access objectives in the future.

SRHE member Dr Eliel Cohen is a sociologist of education and a research associate at Imperial College London. His forthcoming book with Routledge investigates whether universities in the twenty-first century are thriving or just surviving through an analysis of academic boundaries and boundary-crossing activities.  

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko HowsonisAssociate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research & Scholarship (CHERS) at Imperial College London. She is an international expert in higher education research with a focus on student engagement; student outcomes and learning gain; quality, performance and accountability; and gender and prestige in academic work.

Dr Julianne Viola is a social scientist specialising in young people’s civic identity development, efficacy, and engagement with their communities. Her book, Young People’s Civic Identity in the Digital Age (Palgrave 2020) focuses on experiences of young people living in the USA at a unique time in the nation’s history, and calls for the reinvigoration of civic education for the digital age. Julianne earned her doctorate at the University of Oxford and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London.


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Paid, unpaid and hidden internships: still a barrier to social mobility

By Wil Hunt

New evidence suggests graduates from less privileged backgrounds are still at risk of being locked out of certain key industries such as cultural, political and extraterritorial organisations, the media and legal professions. Graduate internships have been the subject of considerable debate for more than ten years. Yet, despite media and policy interest on the topic there is still a lack of generalisable quantitative data on the prevalence of the practice and, particularly, on the question as to whether some groups are being excluded. Back in 2009, the final report of the Panel for Fair Access to the Professions (Milburn, 2009) argued that taking part in an internship after leaving university was often an ‘essential’ first career step in many professions but raised concerns that access was often a question of who you know, not what you know, and whether graduates had the financial means to work for free for a significant period of time.

Fast forward eleven years and while there has been some research on the topic there have still only been generalisable quantitative studies looking at graduate internships in the UK. This is in no small part down to the fact that the main statutory surveys, such as the Labour Force Survey, fail to capture internships as a separate employment category. The Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, has been one notable exception to this, capturing internships since the 2011/12 graduating cohort. Other exceptions include the Futuretrack study, which has followed a cohort of first degree applicants since applying to university in 2006, and one or two one-off surveys.

Studies using data from these sources have shown that unpaid internships do not confer the same advantages as paid internships or university work placements in accessing the best jobs, have a negative impact on earnings and may even reduce the chances of having a graduate job in the short to medium term (Purcell et al, 2012; Holford, 2017; Hunt, 2016). Thus, unpaid graduate internships may not be the ‘invaluable’ ‘leg-up’ claimed by some MPs when talking out the 2016 private members bill that sought to outlaw unpaid internships (Hansard, 4 November col 1156-1226). The same quantitative studies also suggest that access to internships is moulded by a range of factors including social class and educational background, although not always in the way one might expect (Hunt and Scott, 2018).

More recent attempts to assess the situation have been hampered by the measurement problems noted above. The Sutton Trust have made two commendable attempts to estimate participation internships at six months after graduation using the DLHE for the 2012/13 and 2015/16 cohorts (Sutton Trust, 2014; Montacute, 2018). However, these studies underestimated the proportion of unpaid internships by not fully accounting for item non-response in questions about pay in the DLHE and not measuring internships reported as ‘voluntary’ jobs. Examples of ‘voluntary’ jobs identified in the 2011/12 DLHE included: web design and development professionals; conservation professionals; legal professionals; management consultants; journalists; PR professionals; architects; and artists (Hunt and Scott, 2020). Hardly the kinds of work for good causes the voluntary work exception in minimum wage legislation was intended to preclude (Pyper, 2015). When these ‘hidden’ internships were counted in the 2011/12 DLHE 58% of graduates doing an internship at six months after graduation were unpaid – far more than previously estimated (Hunt and Scott, 2020).

Now the DLHE has been replaced by the Graduate Outcomes survey we will only know about graduate internships occurring at 15 months after graduation, after many have been completed. The 2016/17 DLHE, therefore, represents an opportunity to reassess the situation and see how things have changed since 2011/12. The current analysis of the 2016/17 DLHE, funded by SRHE, shows that while the number and proportion of graduates doing an internship at six months after graduation is the same as for the 2011/12 cohort, the number of ‘hidden’ internships has halved from 1,375 to 650 and the proportion of internships that are unpaid has declined from 58% to 36%.

Whilst the decline in unpaid internships is welcome, they still account for more than a third of internships at six months after graduation and this figure is substantially higher in certain key industries and occupations, such as:

  • activities of extraterritorial organisations (eg EC, UN, OECD) (92%);
  • membership organisations (which would include unions and political parties) (70%);
  • libraries, museums and cultural activities (69%);
  • programming and broadcasting (69%);
  • legal associate professionals (69%);
  • conservation and environmental associate professionals (67%); and
  • government and related administrative occupations (including NGOs) (63%).

Findings from other, less generalisable, surveys suggests that the number of graduates engaging in an internship at some point is only likely to increase during the first few years after graduation and, again, many of these are likely to be unpaid (Hunt and Scott, 2018; Cullinane and Montacute, 2018). The most striking findings from the current research, however, are from the multivariate analysis of participation patterns. This analysis shows that, after controlling for the other factors in the analysis, having better grades or studying at a prestigious university increases the chances of securing a paid internship six months after graduation, whereas coming from a higher socio-economic background increases the odds of doing an unpaid internship.

These findings show that, whilst unpaid internships appear to be declining in most sectors, they are still a key access route in some key industries and occupations and that this is likely to present a barrier to entry for less privileged graduates. The fact that graduates with better grades or from more prestigious institutions are more likely to do the paid internships reinforces findings from previous studies that suggest paid internships are more competitive and sought after. The findings also show that participation in graduate internships, paid or unpaid, is more commonplace in less vocational subjects, such as mass communication and documentation, historical and philosophical studies and creative arts and design. This may suggest that graduates of these subjects feel more need to supplement their educational qualifications with internships to ‘get ahead’ in an increasingly competitive graduate labour market.

Dr Wil Hunt is a Research Fellow at the ESRC-funded Digit Research Centre at the University of Sussex. His research interests centre around the higher education, the graduate Labour market and the impact of new digital technologies on the world of work.

This blog reports on research funded by SRHE as one of its 2018 Member Award projects.

References

Cullinane, C and Montacute, R (2018) Pay as You Go? Internship pay, quality and access in the graduate jobs market London: The Sutton Trust

Hansard HC Deb vol 616 col 1156-1226 (4 November 2016) National Minimum Wage (Workplace Internships) Bill [Electronic Version]

Holford, A (2017) Access to and Returns from Unpaid Graduate Internships IZA Discussion Paper No 10845 Bonn: IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Hunt, W (2016) Internships and the Graduate Labour Market PhD thesis, University of Portsmouth

Hunt, W and Scott, P (2018) ‘Participation in paid and unpaid internships among creative and communications graduates: does class advantage play a part?’ In Waller, R Ingram, N and Ward, M (2018) (Eds.) Degrees of Injustice: Social Class Inequalities in University Admissions, Experiences and Outcomes London: BSA/Routledge

Hunt, W and Scott, P (2020) ‘Paid and unpaid graduate internships: prevalence, quality and motivations at six months after graduation’ Studies in Higher Education 45(2): 464-476

Milburn, A (chair) (2009) Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions London: The Stationery Office

Montacute, R (2018) Internships – Unpaid, unadvertised, unfair Research Brief London: The Sutton Trust

Purcell, K, Elias, P, Atfield, G, Behle, H, Ellison, R, Luchinskaya, D, … Tzanakou, C (2012) Futuretrack Stage 4: Transitions into employment, further study and other outcomes (Full Report). (HECSU Research Report) Manchester: Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU)

Pyper, D (2015) The National Minimum Wage: volunteers and interns. Briefing Paper Number 00697. London: House of Commons Library.

Sutton Trust (2014). Internship or Indenture? Research Brief London: The Sutton Trust


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Mind the Gap – Gendered and Caste-based Disparities in Access to Conference Opportunities

In an interview with Conference Inference [1] editor Emily Henderson, Nidhi S. Sabharwal discussed inequalities of access to conference opportunities in India.

Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)

EH: Nidhi, can you explain first of all where conferences come into your wider research on inequalities in Indian higher education?

NS: Equitable access to professional development opportunities such as conferences is an indicator of institutional commitment to achieving diversity and inclusion of diverse social groups on campuses. Continue reading


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The deaf delegate – experiences of space and time in the conference (BSL version included)

By Dai O’Brien

In this post, Dai O’Brien discusses spatial and temporal challenges that deaf academics face when attending conferences, and presents some preliminary thoughts from his funded research project on deaf academics. This post is accompanied by a filmed version of this post in British Sign Language.

Access the British Sign Language version of this post here.

Attending conferences is all about sharing information, making those contacts which can help you with research ideas, writing projects and so on. This is the ideal. However, Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Applications to UK universities: digging beyond the headlines…

By Ian McNay

‘Record numbers apply to enter higher education’ was the good news reported at the end of the first application period in January by most papers – I have not seen one to query this, but I have not checked them all. The March figures are now out, almost unreported, and confirm what was true in January: applications are up on last year, by just over 2 per cent. The increase for the UK is lower than that, at about 1.6 per cent.

That is good, but the claim of a record depends what you count and compare with. The secondary headline was that this record showed that high fee levels had had no impact, implying that the record applied where fees had been raised. Not true. Continue reading


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Ethnicity trumps school background as a predictor of admission to elite UK universities

By Kurien Parel and Vikki Boliver 

Last year an article in the Guardian newspaper described significant disparities in the success rates of white and non-white applicants to the University of Oxford, even among students who received top grades at A-level.  The article, by Kurien Parel and James Ball, reported that, in 2010-11, offer rates were around 1.5 times higher for white applicants than for ethnic minority applicants with the same grades, and up to twice as high in relation to Oxford’s two most oversubscribed subjects, Medicine, and Economics and Management. This pattern was found to hold even for students with 3+ A* grades at A-level.

Of course, A-level performance is not the only criterion for admission to Oxford or other Russell Group universities. Indeed, admissions decisions are often made before A-level results are known, on the basis of predicted A-level grades, prior grades achieved at AS-level and GCSE, references, personal statements, and other criteria. Moreover, certain degree subjects have certain A-level subject prerequisites.

Nevertheless, the figures reported in the Guardian appear to contradict claims made on behalf of Oxford University that ethnic differences in offer rates are due to ethnic disparities in academic attainment at schools as reflected in A-level grades coupled with the fact ethnic minorities apply disproportionately to more competitive subjects such as Medicine.

Some have speculated that ethnic minority applicants to Oxford have lower offer rates because they are more likely to have attended non-selective state schools. Such schools are thought to be less adept at helping applicants prepare for university-administered tests and admissions interviews than state grammar schools and private fee-paying schools.

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