Attendees of the first workshop in a conference room with a projector screen

Doctoral Admissions Workshop 1: Fundamentals of Equity in Doctoral Admissions

It’s now been a whole two weeks since the first YCEDE workshops! These were the launch workshops for Workstream 2 held at the Principal Hotel in York.

As you are aware, YCEDE is a four-year project based on collaboration between five universities in Yorkshire. Funded by the Office for Students and Research England, it focuses on questions of access to and success in doctoral study for graduates from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. The recruitment and selection workstream (WS2) focuses on reviewing selection processes, criteria and practices to support equity and access in the PhD. It draws on research evidence and pioneering programmes established to promote racial equity in US higher education, notably the Equity in Graduate Education Consortium and iGen (the latter focussed on STEM disciplines).

WS2 involves a group of ten pioneer academic schools and departments across the five universities who will collaborate to pilot change. This will include learning about equity in graduate admissions and potential strategies for success as developed in US higher education; adapting those insights for our own contexts in Yorkshire; applying and evaluating those models; and advising on the cascading of revised approaches across the five universities.

Dr Julie Posselt (University of Southern California, sociologist) and Prof Casey Miller (Rochester Institute of Technology, physicist) from EGEC/iGen came to Yorkshire to lead the workshops for YCEDE. Julie and Casey are highly experienced colleagues who shared their research-based and practical experience and knowledge about racially equitable graduate admissions, as they have done through their oversubscribed programme of workshops for US universities. They helped us to think about doctoral selection so that we can work positively together, across the consortium, to make admissions more equitable and effective.

The first workshop, on 11th July, focussed on introducing the fundamentals of equity in doctoral admissions, introducing the concept of ‘holistic review’. With the Yorkshire sunshine blasting through the windows, Julie Posselt took to the stage to discuss the extent of inequality in US and UK graduate education. Specifically looking at what role admissions plays in reinforcing inequalities.

The key problem highlighted was that students from a Black, Asian, or minoritised ethnicity were severely underrepresented at postgraduate research level. As the chart below shows, white students represent 75.19% of undergraduate students – but 81.93% of postgraduate research students.

An illustration of the problems that YCEDE aims to solve

Focussing specifically on the University of York, if minoritised applicants were offered at the same rate as White applicants, then their numbers among registered PhD students would increase by almost one third.

Next, the legal basis for contextual admissions was considered. This contentious area of graduate admissions is quite different between American and British contexts. Contextual admissions have been part of undergraduate admissions for some time now in British higher education. However, this is not the case in the USA – some states have even outlawed contextual admissions.

After a refreshing break for lunch, Casey and Julie went on to discuss the idea of holistic review. This is the idea that it is necessary to consider the whole person and their potential – rather than relying on problematic and outdated conceptions of academic ‘merit’. Holistic review should create a comprehensive picture of a PhD applicant, including metrics such as: academic preparation, scholarly potential, alignment with programme, alignment with diversity values, and socio-emotional competencies. These are aspects of a candidate that are very important in judging their ability to complete a PhD – though they are often missed by traditional application processes.

Lastly, Casey and Julie asked the delegates to consider how the principles of holistic review can be implemented through the use of rubrics. Using rubrics has several advantages. For example, it strengthens equity because all candidates are assessed against the same clearly-stated criteria. Moreover, they mitigate implicit bias by focusing on predefined factors. They even help the academics responsible for admissions by providing a source of accountability to defend from accusations of unfairness.

Overall, the first workshop was a massive success. Delegates arrived from across the YCEDE institutions and sparked a fascinating discussion about doctoral admissions. It is clear that YCEDE has many challenges ahead – but this was a truly inspiring start.