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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Do top universities really discriminate?

Interesting story in yesterday's Guardian citing some work by my former colleague Vikki Boliver, now at Durham. It's difficult to know what to make of it as the paper it appears to be based on won't enter the public domain until June. Still, judging from the write up, most of the points I made about another Guardian story along the same lines seem to apply (at least to the way the work is presented in the newspaper report - who knows, there may be misreporting of the actual research). 
Strong claims about discrimination require strong evidence. That means modelling the process properly ie taking into account relevant differences between candidates  - grades and subject choices at 16, A2 subjects, degree course applied to etc and not conditioning on A level scores that are unknown at the time an admission offer is made. The latter can always be done, the former may present difficulties of data availability - but then one should be very cautious about what one claims, discrimination is a very inflammatory word. 
Of course it is entirely legitimate to run a line that says, look, here is a social process that leads to candidates who eventually obtain similar A level grades receiving offers from different kinds of universities. We can ask whether such a system is one we want? We can ask how come things turn out that way? But discrimination is only one of the possible mechanisms that could produce such a state of affairs and the outcome, given the nature of the process, is not in itself strong evidence in favour of a discrimination hypothesis.
Here is an anecdote that is relevant. In another life I worked, for a short time, in a department of management in a top university. For a year I did undergraduate admissions. Our programme was rather unusual. It was very math and economics heavy and very light on the fluffier sorts of courses that sometimes feature in u/g business studies programmes. Applications ran at the rate of roughly 15 per place so competition was intense. We were very clear about what we wanted. Grade A in A level maths and As in at least 2 other serious traditional academic subjects, preferably sciences. In the pool of applicants we had utterly outstanding European candidates ie every year there were several with a straight 1 in the German Abitur. There were also a large number, often I have to say, from British state schools who just didn't stand a chance. Their GCSE's were Bs and Cs , they were studying a mix that included the more fluffy A level subjects (including business studies). They were obviously badly advised by their school or college to apply for our course. Some of these, no doubt, will have gone on to get 3 As at A level, perhaps even in the traditional academic subjects we were looking for. The problem for the admissions tutor is that at the point you make the offer decision you have no serious way of knowing which ones will come good. So you pick people who have a proven track record and are studying a subject combination that maximizes the chances that they will cope with what you are going to throw at them in the next three years. Business studies, drama, art and design, sociology, religious studies simply weren't going to cut the mustard. Good state schools, serious academic private schools and  educated middle class parents knew this and made sure that choices weren't wasted. One wonders what was going through the minds of the advisers elsewhere.

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