Universities to trial ‘name-blind’ applications


By Naina Bhardwaj, News Editor

A group of universities will introduce so-called ‘name blind’ admissions processes for some courses next year, to test whether masking students’ names can stop potential discrimination based on assumptions about students’ names following concerns Amid fears that BME students are losing out to their white counterparts when they apply for university.

The Exeter, Huddersfield, Liverpool and Winchester universities will pilot the scheme in September 2017 where names will all be blanked out. The admissions process would use any relevant contextual information about a student, however, such as whether they were from a low-income family but the name would remain concealed. Without identifying names, applications would be considered without knowing the gender of students or any indications of their ethnic background or religion.  For universities that interview applicants for some courses, they would need to decide when admissions officers would have access to the names. The universities will then evaluate benefits for students and it will be decided whether changes are needed to be implemented more widely.

The announcement comes despite a Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) report said that while “there is no evidence of systemic bias in the admissions system”, it found that “there are providers whose offer rates to certain groups are outside of what might be expected if offers were made solely on the basis of applicants’ predicted grades”. However it did recommend that universities trying out the name-blind approach alongside better training about unconscious bias, which the development for will be lead by the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions organisation. Five other potential policies were also recommended by the report.

Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson said: “We are committed to ensuring that everyone with the ability, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to study at our world-class universities. That is why we called on UCAS to conduct this review and I’m delighted to see universities working together to take it forward and stamp out inequality.”

Data released by UCAS earlier this year also revealed that black applicants were less likely than expected to get an offer at 100 universities, while Asian students were less likely to get an offer at 90 out of the 120 that were surveyed by comparing their student admissions systems and evidence of bias with their employee recruitment systems. It confirmed that unexpectedly low rates are “more often than not seen in the offers made to the black and Asian groups” in universities across all price ranges. In other words, while they may be admitting a large number of disadvantaged or BME students, they may still not be making enough offers. Additionally when looking at the measures institutions take to minimise risks of “unconscious bias”, UCAS found that a small number “indicated a lack of awareness of the risks, mistaking egalitarian views and a diverse student intake as sufficient means for addressing risks”.

However UCAS maintains that admissions to UK universities are “broadly fair” and argues that differences in admissions can largely be explained by previous attainment, and the competitiveness of courses that different types of students apply to. It should also be noted that the study did not look at other factors that influence which candidates receive offers, such as applicants’ A-level subject combinations, interviews, admissions tests and other qualifications.

But many universities claimed that masking names on applications could backfire, and make it hard for them to nurture contacts with potential applicants from poor backgrounds through outreach schemes. In addition to this, a supposedly name-blind approach would not prevent an applicant’s name appearing elsewhere on the form, for example, in a personal statement. There have also been concerns about the cost of changing application management software.

UCAS has ruled out making its central admissions process name-blind, preferring to leave it up to individual institutions after many expressed concerns about a lack of evidence into the necessity for this and the scale of overturn to adopt the scheme would be too costly without justification. The preferred approach, therefore, is for universities to take their own decision on whether to adopt name-blind admissions, and the pilot has been designed to encourage others to follow suit.

Helen Thorne, UCAS’ Director of External Relations said: “Managing university admissions is a complex business. Universities use different technology systems and many use a number of different admissions processes for individual subjects. Admissions professionals are concerned that if UCAS were to mask names centrally this could affect their ability to maintain relationships with students and undermine efforts to widen participation.”

Last year, former Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to introduce a name-blind higher education admissions system by 2017, as part of the government’s efforts to increase student diversity at leading institutions. Cameron said racial bias was “clearly a risk” in the current university admissions system, citing UCAS statistics for Russell Group universities that show 55% of applications from white students are offered places, compared to 23% of applications from black students.

Universities have been under pressure from the government to make sure that they are open to applicants from all social backgrounds. Recently, the Office for Fair Access said that universities would spend £834m on outreach projects and scholarships to support poorer students and Oxford University has announced that this year it would be admitting the highest proportion of students from state schools for more than 40 years.