Understanding ‘fairness’ in student selection: are there differences and does it make a difference anyway?
Written by Tim Pitman, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
It is a fundamental tenet of public policy that participation in higher education is characterised by equity of access. However, what constitutes a fair selection process cannot easily be prescribed. Narrowly speaking, the term ‘student selection’ refers to the specific mechanisms used by a university to rank and select from a pool of applicants, especially when demand exceeds supply (Harman 1994). More broadly, however, student selection encompasses a wide range of personal circumstances, barriers and opportunities and prior learning, all of which ultimately influence whether or not a student is preferred above others (Bourdieu 2002; Harman 1994). In the wider sense therefore, the factors that influence processes of student selection are not easily delineated, either spatially or temporally. Furthermore, rules, policies and institutions regulating access to higher education are subjected to a plurality of priorities among which fairness is a relatively recent arrival (Meyer et al. 2013).
Universities are regularly accused of unfair bias in admission processes, with elite institutions often singled out as being more frequent offenders (Boliver 2013; Karabel 2005; Zimdars 2010). In response, higher education institutions have been encouraged to adopt fairer student selection processes that allow for students in different circumstances to be treated differently and even encouraging aspirational enrolment targets of disadvantaged students (e.g. Bradley et al. 2008; Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills and Minister for Universities and Science 2011). Public policy rarely advises, however, how universities should define and operationalise ‘fair’ student selection processes, beyond broad prescriptions, such as ‘when making decisions about the selection of students, [a university] is able to take educational disadvantages that a particular student has experienced into account’ (Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research, and Tertiary Education 2012, 13).
This study considers the ideal of fairness in Australian public universities in relation to institutional policies of student selection. Through a critical analysis of relevant policy documents, it presents a typology of ‘fairness’ in student selection. Furthermore, the study compares the various policy approaches to actual institutional behaviour to see if the ways in which universities conceptualise fairness have had any apparent effect on raising the participation levels of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Although the findings are specific to the Australian higher education system, they have wider applicability, due to generic understandings of natural justice and fairness (Sen 2009), as well as similarities in Western (primarily UK, Canadian, Europe and Australasia) higher education government and higher education structures.