Affirmative Action and Ph.D. Admissions at the University of Oxford

Monday, September 28, 2020

The University of Oxford, one of the best universities in the UK, has chosen to examine socioeconomic background of applicants without seeing names and genders.

As part of a mission to diversify university admissions, the University of Oxford has decided to examine information on the socioeconomic background of applicants for several Ph.D. programs as part of a drive to diversify admissions.

The university will employ a program that covers five different doctoral training programs across the fields of science and medicine. Oxford will take several steps to make the applications process anonymous by removing names and gender pronouns from applications before these applications are reviewed.

Admissions staff will examine socioeconomic indicators. 

These measures will be put into place for entry in autumn 2021. Some indicators that will be looked at will include if British applicants received free school meals during secondary school, or the average take-up of free school meals at their school. These measures are commonly used in the assessment of undergraduate applications.

Some of these indicators could be useful in assessing an individual’s academic potential beyond their performance at the undergraduate level. 

Stuart Conway, a professor of organic chemistry at Oxford, shared, “Some students are working to support themselves throughout university—they will be on an upward trajectory if they are applying to us, but they may not have seen the full results [of what they can achieve]", as cited by Inside Higher Ed.

Gail Preston, the director of the interdisciplinary bioscience doctoral training partnership, shares, “Many applicants will spend their summers going to different research groups and getting research experience, but others find it hard to do this.”

The effort to make the process anonymous is part of a larger attempt to ensure a more equal bender balance in the doctoral candidates selected for interview and to ensure that students from ethnic minorities do not face discrimination. These moves mirror recent actions to make undergraduate applications more anonymous.

Conway shared more about the experience in an interview with Inside Higher Ed: “It is quite a work-intensive process, but we don’t really need someone’s name when they are applying. The first time you read an anonymized CV, you intuitively try to guess whether it is a man or a woman, but you stop doing this quite quickly. It feels quite odd now to read a CV with this kind of information.”

Conway hoped that anonymous CVs could help encourage more ethnic minority students to apply to Oxford for postgraduate study. 

Applicants will also be filling in standardized forms, rather than submitting their own CVs. This may help selectors receive fairer and more consistent information about each applicant’s ability.

These changes follow other efforts to improve postgraduate diversity, including the creation of paid research internships at Oxford, a plan that was designed to take 100 students and graduates during the summer before it was moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What could this mean for online learning?

Online masters degrees and online doctoral degrees, similar to in-person masters and doctoral degrees, often have rigorous selection processes.

The University of Oxford is just one of many top colleges and universities that is trying to open its admissions selection processes to minority populations.

It will be worth noting how Oxford’s doctoral degree master student population changes over the course of time, if at all. The university’s processes could become a model for other top colleges and universities in the UK.

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