Last autumn, the prime minister pledged to introduce a so-called “name-blind” higher education admissions system by 2017, as part of the government’s efforts to increase student diversity at leading institutions.
Unconscious racial bias was “clearly a risk” in the current university admissions system, David Cameron claimed, saying that making applications anonymous could help.
Discrimination in modern Britain, he said, came in “quieter and more subtle” forms than it had historically, such as “not getting your first choice of university place”.
Mr Cameron said that he had already convinced a number of big graduate employers – such as HSBC and Deloitte – to introduce anonymised recruitment.
But an “evidence-gathering” exercise by the university admissions body Ucas suggests that making his pledge a reality in universities could backfire.
Many universities believe that the move could actually wreck efforts to widen access to students from the poorest families, the research finds. Universities have told Ucas that it is vital the plan does not destroy their ability to “build relationships” with potential applicants, Helen Thorne, the admissions body’s director of external relations, told a conference last month.
Ms Thorne said that universities had stressed “how incredibly important having someone’s name is in terms of building the relationship with the applicant, particularly an applicant from a widening-participation background”.
“The [admissions official] really wants to know who that person is, and put their arms around them and make them feel valued and help them engage positively with the admissions process,” she said.
“It’s incredibly important that whatever is put in place still enables that relationship to happen in a really positive way.”
Headteachers have said that the government should listen to universities’ concerns on the issue. Peter Kent, headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, which has a sixth form of 320, mostly studying A levels, said: “I am very conscious as a head that universities are trying very hard with their outreach programmes and they are positive and clearly directed. We have to listen to the feedback they are giving. I would be very careful to take on board what they are saying [about the pitfalls of name-blind admissions].”
In a submission to a consultation on the latest higher education green paper – which contains the drive towards name-blind applications – the Russell Group of elite universities said that the plan could “hinder efforts to improve progression to HE for disadvantaged and under-represented groups”.
The group said: “In particular, it will make it more difficult for universities to identify and track applications from students with whom they have existing relationships, for instance, as part of long-term outreach and engagement programmes.”
Key programmes that could be affected, the Russell Group said, include the Realising Opportunities scheme. This is currently run at 14 leading universities and aims to help sixth-formers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Academic experts have also weighed in on the issue. Dr Vikki Boliver, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Durham University, who has researched inequality in university admissions, said that it would be “impractical” to “blind” every piece of information in a Ucas form that has the potential to reveal an applicant’s ethnic or social background.
In a submission to Ucas on the issue, she said: “Admissions selectors will still see each applicant’s home address, the school they attended, what they have written about themselves in their personal statement and what their teacher has written about them in their reference, all of which may provide clues as to an applicant’s ethnic background and other social characteristics.”
It would be “virtually impossible to disguise an applicant’s ethnic or social background where formal interviews are used as a selection tool”, she added.
It was “unlikely”, therefore, that name-blind admissions alone would eliminate ethnic bias, she said. Dr Boliver has called for universities to “develop processes and foster cultures in which such biases are recognised and redressed”, and for more research to be done on the issue.
Other organisations pushing for fairer admissions – including the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust – have spoken out in broad support of the prime minister’s pledge, but have also expressed concerns about the practicalities of implementing such a policy.
Dr Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the trust, said that name-blind admissions was unlikely to solve “deeper inequalities that contribute to the persistent access gap at our most selective universities”.
Research by the charity had shown, he said, that “a sizeable part of the access gap” was down to less-advantaged students not receiving the same levels of support as their more well-off peers in applications. “If name-blind admissions are to be introduced in 2017, it will be vital that they don’t impact on the important access and outreach work that universities are undertaking,” he added.
King’s College London, which takes part in the Realising Opportunities access programme, said that name-blind admissions could “hinder” its use of contextual information in its widening-participation schemes.
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that there may be significant “practical issues” with anonymising applications, and a lot of detail would have to be thought through.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that name-blind applications “would be an important step to help level the playing field and tackle inequality.”
Teacher turnover ‘a problem’
Pupils at some schools may be missing out on important university outreach activities because of high teacher turnover at their schools.
Clair Murphy, who oversees the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach project – a £22 million, two-year government-funded scheme to improve university outreach work across England – highlighted the issue for those trying to establish links with schools around the country.
“One complaint is there’s a very high staff turnover in some schools, so you get somebody to talk to about outreach, then they move on and you have to begin making relationships all over again,” she said.
“And some schools, of course, have a difficult Ofsted; they may wish to concentrate on inside the institution rather than looking outside to activities such as this.”
Ms Murphy also told the Westminster Higher Education Forum last month that increasing competition between schools also meant they were “slightly less keen” to collaborate over university outreach activity.