22 SES 01 A, (In)Equalities in Acess
Within the extensive body of research on inequalities in access and transition to higher education there has been relatively little examination of application and admission processes. Researchers have tended to concentrate on enrolment, focusing on the blunt fact of whether or not an individual entered (or alternatively completed) a higher education degree. However enrolling in higher education in many higher education systems is preceded by a process of application, whereby potential students are judged and selected for a limited number of places. In order to achieve a place, a potential student must first apply and be offered a place. This means that differential rates of entry to higher education for particular groups could be related to different rates of application, or to different rates of application success. The distinction is important if we are to understand the process by which inequalities in higher education transitions might arise. There exist few systematic studies of inequalities in application and admission. However recent work on the UK has pointed to inequalities on the basis of social class and race/ethnicity which cannot be accounted for by ‘meritocratic’ factors such as prior attainment (Boliver 2013, 2015; Zimdars, 2010).
Similarly, while there is a well-developed understanding of entry to initial higher education such as bachelor-level degrees, little research has been conducted on transition to postgraduate study. Such qualifications appear to be increasingly important in securing advantages over and above those enjoyed by first-degree graduates (Lindley and Machin, 2013; Walker and Zhu, 2013). They are also increasingly a requisite qualification for certain professions, including the academic profession. Sociological theories suggest that inequalities in transition are likely to ‘pass up’ from first degree to postgraduate level as access to the former becomes more widespread (Collins, 1979; Raftery and Hout, 1993; Wolf, 2002). Evidence from existing studies in the UK (Wakeling and Hampden-Thompson, 2013), Germany (Neugebauer, 2015), Norway (Mastekaasa, 2005, 2006) and the USA (English and Umbach, 2016; Mullen et al., 2003) point to inequalities of access according to social class and other background factors, including gender. There are also a complex set of field-of-study and institution type influences apparent. However the field remains underdeveloped and there have been repeated calls for more research (e.g. Posselt and Garces, 2014; McCulloch and Thomas, 2013).
In particular, very little prior research exists on the postgraduate admissions process. What little research there is focuses ethnographically on faculty selection practices in particular disciplines or institutions. While this shows some evidence of inequality and inequity, it is not clear whether such issues scale up across whole institutions or systems, nor the relative importance of various factors in predicting admission.
In this presentation, we explore inequalities in postgraduate admissions using comprehensive data from six English universities. We address the following questions:
1. How does the profile of postgraduate applicants, in terms of key social background characteristics, differ from that of the comparable population from which they are drawn (i.e. first-degree graduates)?
2. What factors are associated with success in postgraduate application? In other words, are applicants from certain backgrounds more likely to receive an offer of a postgraduate place than others?
3. Do any identified inequalities remain after taking into account ‘meritocratic’ discriminators?
In answering these questions, we provide new indications of the process of transition from undergraduate to postgraduate qualifications.
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