Decolonising university admissions

As the sector seeks recruitment opportunities in Africa, Latin America and Asia, Sunita Abraham, Jordan Blanchard-Lafayette, Nafisa Baba-Ahmed, and Richard Budd make the case for decolonising university admissions processes

Nafisa Baba-Ahmed is PhD researcher in the Department for Educational Research at Lancaster University and a postgraduate personal tutor in Digital Humanities at King’s College London.

Jordan Blanchard-Lafayette is a PhD researcher at the Lancaster Environment Centre and the University of Nottingham.

Dr Sunita Abraham is a Lecturer in Decolonisation in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Lancaster University.

Dr Richard Budd is a Lecturer in Higher Education in the Department for Educational Research at Lancaster University

Despite ongoing social and political resistance and organisational inertia, decolonising in higher education is gaining traction.

Awareness of the racialised inequalities in higher education – rooted in empire-building – is growing. And in many of these spaces for change, grassroots moves to change colonial practices are steadily progressing.

Decolonising is often associated with the curriculum, but this is only a starting point. Diversifying and recentring our course materials has little impact if our internal cultures remain malevolent towards certain groups.

Decolonising doctorates, for example, relate as much to who gets to study for one, who supervises them (and how), and what their underpinning logics and outcomes are, as the research content.

Historian Catherine Hall argued, we must acknowledge and address present-day racism and its connections to the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Those of us who have in-/directly benefitted from the fruits of exploitation associated with empire need to give something up – not just symbolically but in more tangible ways.

Some universities and individuals are already demonstrating how reparative justice can be undertaken in practical and collaborative forms, but this needs to be more systematic.

Admissions as requirements, challenges, and barriers

While our sector as a whole might be diverse, different university groups are not. The so-called elite universities are more socially selective but attract more international learners, while institutions without those inherited advantages and colonial roots have more diverse but primarily domestic populations.

The higher status universities monetise international students, in particular through charging far higher fees, and feel supported and justified to do this by their marketing and prestige – underpinned by league tables which reinforce their already significant advantages. This is a self-reinforcing relationship in that international rankings reward Western norms and wealth.

To study in the UK, international applicants need to clear several hurdles: academic, linguistic, financial, and bureaucratic. These consist of negotiating the application process, meeting entrance requirements, covering fee and living costs, and obtaining visas, which now include having to leave loved ones behind.

There is, of course, a logic to each of these; we need a system for allocating places and a foundation of knowledge, skills, and English proficiency. Some of these – particularly the hostile environment around immigration and fees to some extent – have been imposed by the government.

To think about decolonising admission, we must think beyond the ‘common sense’ logic of the wider admissions system. For whom are these requirements easily achievable, challenging but attainable, or unsurpassable barriers, and how does this play out socially and geographically?

If the international student population is not representative of the global population – and it is not –then there are forces of inequity at play. Is it right that we reserve (international) spaces on our study programmes for the privileged while excluding others, particularly when we play a part in engineering some of this inequality? The system is clearly unfair, and to more fully address this, we must adopt the principle of reparations.

Reparative admissions

The application process is bewildering to the uninitiated, and many universities support a lucrative ecosystem of in-country agents and agencies to compile and submit international admissions and visa applications.

Universities could simplify the system to remove the need for agents and support applicants to negotiate this and related visa procedures in-house. Alternatively, they could pay agents’ fees themselves and lobby harder for change from the Home Office.

In terms of admissions requirements, at least at the point of acceptance and entry, universities should revisit and evaluate whether and where they are excessively high. There are already foundation programmes and pre-sessional courses for those currently deemed not quite up to scratch, but these are expensive and require students to travel. These could be offered at reduced or no cost and/or online. The outreach, already widely practised in the UK, could also be extended overseas.

Taking this further, universities should significantly reduce (or abolish) fees and accommodation costs where possible. There are too few scholarships for those from the Global South, and these must be generous, accessible and comprehensive, or they risk becoming the preserve of the privileged, further reinforcing inequalities. And if they only cover essential costs, this would force some students to secure multiple jobs to supplement already meagre resources, and student visas (and timetables) only allow a certain amount of paid work. Addressing fees, in particular, feels countercultural regarding how our universities work.

At one level, Western universities can’t fully decolonise because they would need to fundamentally rethink who they are and how they work. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal that could still be achieved within the current model.

Unfeasible Solutions?

Our suggestions here require significant outlays of cash, staff time, and resources. Some would argue that money is too tight, and inflation – coupled with static domestic fees – makes these even more unaffordable. Morally speaking, though, we can’t afford not to.

If universities’ claims of valuing equality, diversity, and inclusivity are to ring true, they have to walk the walk. In terms of admissions, we can only diversify our student populations if we ensure that our system of requirements is brought much closer to less privileged international (and domestic) students rather than rendering UK study unattainable to too many.

Upending our admissions logic and processes would only be part of the solution. As with work on widening participation more broadly, changing the composition of the student body only works if the cultures within universities – from teaching to all other aspects – are also inclusive. The prevalence and resilience of awarding gaps are sometimes argued as a symptom of hostility within universities towards marginalised groups – particularly towards people of colour from within or outside the UK.

The sector’s solutions always seem to be extractive – places in the UK or transnational provision – rather than altruistic. This needs to change. It is immoral and hypocritical lasciviously to eye the commercial opportunities in areas impacted by empire and colonisation – Africa, Latin America, and Asia – as their populations and middle classes grow and not commit to a serious exercise of decolonisation.

2 responses to “Decolonising university admissions

  1. I couldn’t agree more with the authors. But the call for decolonising (Western) university admissions should be integral to wider efforts in reforming the UK and other high-income countries’ higher education landscape, to make a difference. This would include paying attention to important differences between the countries, not least in terms of funding. Adam Habib’s reflections on the topic are extremely valuable as they shed light on how the funding in England sets clear limits to such a broader undertaking.
    and including a reflection on brain drain, see

    1. Completely agree, Eva. Our focus in this case was on admissions themselves; of course we recognise that they sit within a much wider web of interacting elements – not least the absurdity of rankings and international/domestic status differentials, publication norms and geographical unevenness, research funding and collaboration inequalities, curricular and theoretical bias, staff recruitment and retention, student engagement and outcomes, and so on. Decolonising needs to happen in all of these spaces, and more.

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