DEBATE: Should universities use contextual data for applicants?

Simon Fern: Yes, positive discrimination is a fair means of mitigating structural inequalities.  

Two women tie for first place in a 200m sprint, but it transpires that on closer inspection Emily was wearing a 20kg rucksack, whereas Amy was without such a burden. Whose performance is more impressive? Positive discrimination simply means that, without detracting from Amy’s achievement, we recognise that Emily faced a much harder run. This does not mean that we let certain people forgo the contest all together, or that we in some way devalue the hard work of more privileged competitors. Just as we might suggest that the burdened athlete is more deserving of first place, it seems common sense to accept that a student who overcomes serious personal obstacles is markedly more deserving of recognition than one who has not had to overcome such hurdles.

For some students, being able to purchase essential textbooks means cutting back on the weekly food budget. For some students, getting into class in the morning means first making sure that dad has been helped to dress. For some students, the stress incurred during the exam period can mean frequent panic attacks, or even hospitalisation, rather than simply not having a decent kip the night before. The suggestion that we somehow compete on a level playing field is a ludicrous conceit; an attitude bred of ignorance and divorced from any sensitivity to the hardships those less fortunate can face.

Admissions departments ought to take into account not just the results we achieve, but the relative adversity which we overcame in doing so. The University of Edinburgh’s own admissions department phrase this point excellently in recognising that “not all have an equal opportunity to demonstrate their potential”, and thus as a result special considerations are made. Edinburgh sets out a criteria which considers whether the applicant has attended a school where very few students achieve high grades in exams, whether the applicant has been in care, or if the applicant has faced socio-economic disadvantage. How anyone can conceive of this approach as anything but considered and appropriate is baffling.

It is important to bear in mind that this policy does not mean that an Etonian would be significantly disadvantaged by attending a well performing school, or that the daughter of an oil tycoon would face automatic rejection for her good fortune. Instead, positive discrimination means that what circumstantial advantages these people were blessed with would be accounted for, in considering their performance against those who have not been as fortunate. For instance, one approach might be to consider a student’s performance against the context of their classmates. If you were to walk out with straight As at a school, where the average student was coming away with mostly Ds, then you would be looked upon more favourably. Likewise, coming out of a school where most students achieve A*A*A with only ABB suggests that relatively to one’s peers, a student may not have academically excelled as much as they could with available resources.

Positive discrimination is a means of addressing wider societal issues; we are able to tackle the inequalities facing students from certain backgrounds, where they are grossly mistreated by structural factors such as sexism, racism or classism. This does not mean that we ought to use positive discrimination as a way of enacting a political agenda, or that it is an effective way of papering over social ills. It is right that nobody should be made to feel a ‘token’ addition to a class, however, it is essential that we begin to recognise our privilege, and begin to make what changes we can to an education system that systemically fails so many based purely on accident of birth.


Freddie Wild: No, contextual data distorts signals that reflect the academic ability of students.

We, as a university, want the best students to come to Edinburgh. Academics want to teach the brightest students. Administrators like a set of engaged students with low drop-out rates. Students desire the elevated discourse that comes from being among intelligent peers, and the enhanced career prospects that go hand in hand with a university’s reputation. When focussing on admissions to any university, the only criterion must be the candidate’s ability.

It is when examining candidates from different income backgrounds that this simple objective stumbles. It is commonly accepted that the advantages that accrue through private education exceed, to a greater or lesser degree, those that come from being educated in the state sector. This creates bias in the admissions process, as it gives advantage to those from better backgrounds, something we rightly regard as distasteful. Policies such as the use of contextual data in deciding whom to accept into a course are designed to overcome this bias. However, despite noble intentions, such examples of positive discrimination invariably are little more than make-up blotchily applied, masking the problem but certainly not curing it.

The issue with those from better backgrounds having an educational advantage is that it distorts the signals that education is meant to provide. We take GCSEs and A-Levels not necessarily because this is the best way to learn about History, English or Maths, or because we enjoy trekking around the moor on Duke of Edinburgh, but rather because these qualifications act as informational signals to prospective employers and universities. When a person comes from a background that makes these signals easier to achieve, they undermine the amount of information that is carried, and so we end up with the problem of distorted admission rates.

Using contextual data as a crutch for correcting this issue fundamentally does not address the loss of information caused by distorted signals. Rather, it throws a blanket over the problem, recognising an imbalance and blindly trying to correct it. Contextual data and many other blind admissions tools further distort the application process as it marks a move away from the criterion of ability. This is detrimental to the student body and the University’s future, as well as scarring the labour pool for years to come.

Rather, efforts should be made to improve the quality of the existing signals and to add new ones. The first step must be to introduce an interview process for the most competitive courses. Educational advantages play out far better on paper than they do face-to-face, and gentle yet deep probing of ideas will yield a far greater indication of a potential student’s prospects than a four thousand character personal statement.

The second step must be to improve access programmes and grants. These aim to demystify and broaden the university experience, providing information on the application process, university life, and what funding schemes are available. Access programmes are very common in the US, especially among top-rank colleges. These tend to be paid for by successful alumni who participate in scholarship endowment schemes, and there is no reason why this model should not be replicable in the UK.

We will always want the very best to come to this University, so that we may learn and talk and argue and study with some of the most intelligent, engaged, dedicated people we will ever meet. This should be regardless of the background they come from. However, we lessen our ability to achieve this using contextual data as a means to enforce positive discrimination. The change must come from the way we assess a candidate’s ability and increasing the University’s access programmes.


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