By Vikki Boliver (University of Durham)
More than half a dozen academic studies have found that university applicants from ethnic minority and state school backgrounds are less likely to be offered places than comparably qualified white and privately educated peers (see Taylor 1992; Shiner and Modood 2002; Zimdars, Sullivan and Heath 2009; Boliver 2004; Boliver 2013; Boliver 2015; and Noden, Shiner and Modood 2014. The latest study indicates that offer rates from Russell Group universities are 3 to 16 percentage points lower for British ethnic minority applicants than for white British applicants, even after controlling for differences in grades and the possession of so-called ‘facilitating subjects’ at A-level. The same study also shows that offer rates from other ‘Old’ and ‘New’ universities are 3 to 4 percentage points lower for some ethnic minority groups relative to the white group after A-level attainment has been taken into account. There is clearly an urgent need to understand what causes these disparities in university admissions chances, but access to the individual-level data needed to do this kind of research is being closed down.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) decided recently that it will only supply aggregated applications and admissions data to academic researchers. This is surely unacceptable.
Individual-level university admissions data needs to be made open access to ensure fairness, transparency and public accountability. Universities remain public institutions, they receive large sums of public money, and they have a legal duty to comply with and promote the aims of the 2010 Equalities Act. Health service institutions routinely supply anonymised individual-level patient data to researchers and regulators – why should universities be any different?
Just as importantly, individual-level university admissions data needs to be made open access so that multiple independent analysts can test various hypotheses about ethnic and school type disparities in offer rates. For example, UCAS holds the data needed to test the Russell Group’s often repeated but as yet unevidenced assertion that ethnic and school type differences in offer rates for applicants occur because “many good students haven’t taken the subjects needed for entry and universities need students not only to have good grades but grades in the right subjects for the course they want to apply for”. This may be wholly true, partly true, or not true at all. But without rigorous independent analysis of the data and detailed publication of the findings, it cannot and must not be taken as fact.
The time has come for universities to make their admissions data available to academic researchers for independent analysis.