Promoting Diversity Through Progressive Admissions

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Monday, September 25, 2023
By Sankar Sivarajah
Photo by iStock/SolStock
At the University of Bradford, contextualized admissions criteria open up higher education opportunities to students from a variety of backgrounds.
  • To develop business leaders who will promote diversity initiatives in their organizations, business schools must model DEI on their own campuses.
  • The University of Bradford diversifies its student body through a progression scheme that considers factors such as an applicant’s social and economic circumstances.
  • Bradford’s School of Management also reinforces its social mission through educational offerings, research, and community projects.

At business schools, we educate students who enter the talent market and eventually become global leaders. We are responsible for creating graduates who have a strong sense of civic responsibility, who question what is right and wrong, and who challenge the status quo.

We must shape business leaders who will be ready to face the real world and all its complexities. They will need to understand the implications of their decisions and the consequences their choices can have on society—and they must be able to do so in the face of all the disinformation that can be found in the world today.

As our alumni rise through the corporate ranks, they have the potential to be change agents. In particular, many will set the agendas for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at their own organizations. But if we expect our graduates to promote DEI in the business world, we first will need to model it on our own campuses.

Generally speaking, in recent years higher education has developed a considerably greater awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion. Many business schools have launched diversity initiatives and significantly increased their representation of students and faculty from outside their home countries.

But while management education has come a long way in terms of DEI, there is more to do. Too often, business schools view inclusivity as little more than a “tick box” exercise. If we truly want to make a difference, we need to make fundamental changes to the system.

We can do this in part by supporting external benchmark measures, such as rankings systems, that give weight to social impact metrics. But perhaps the most important thing we can do is widen access to quality education. This enables us to accelerate the progress of DEI and lead the way for the business community around the world.

Contextualized Admissions

Like many other business schools working toward greater diversity, the University of Bradford in the U.K. aims to provide equal opportunities to students from a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and social contexts. But we have found that, to achieve our goal of attracting a diverse student body—and simultaneously attack pervasive inequalities such as wealth disparity—we need to design deliberate protocols. Our initiatives affect all students, from undergraduates to MBAs.

One of our most important inclusivity initiatives has been the adoption of contextualized admissions criteria for our undergraduate students. Through this progression scheme, we can take into account an array of information about applicants, such as their social and economic circumstances and where they live. This approach allows us to consider applicants whose personal and educational circumstances mean they could be less likely to receive offers based on our standard entry criteria.

Through our progression scheme of admissions, we can take into account an array of information about applicants, such as their social and economic circumstances.

Frequently, these individuals first come to our attention when they apply through the online portal of the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS). UCAS uses a U.K. classification system known as POLAR (participation of local areas), which estimates how likely it is that young people in particular areas will pursue higher education. Those who fall into the first and second quintiles of POLAR’s five classifications show the lowest rate of participation in higher education.

All universities in the U.K. are required to increase the proportion of students they take from low-participation quintiles. But because some potential students from low-income backgrounds reside in higher POLAR quintiles, they are not flagged by the UCAS system. This means they could miss out on opportunities to participate in higher education.

Therefore, at Bradford, the POLAR classification is only one criterion out of eight that we use to determine if applicants are eligible for the progression scheme. When we consider a range of factors outside the control of applicants, we seek to make sure their circumstances do not hinder their access to quality higher education.

Broader Criteria

At Bradford, we look at other contextual information, such as whether applicants are asylum seekers, adult learners, or care leavers (that is, adults who spent time in foster or residential care as children or adolescents). We also consider whether they are from military families or from groups that identify as gypsies, showmen, or boatmen. Some of these categories are automatically noted in UCAS applications. Individuals can choose whether to disclose that they fit other categories as well.

In addition, we identify eligible students through attendance at college and career fairs, on-campus events, and webinars. We also seek them out by informing teachers and career counselors about the progression scheme, and we promote it through our website and social media.

All students who are eligible for the progression scheme potentially can be admitted if they meet the required entrance criteria and attend one open day and one progression scheme webinar delivered by the outreach and recruitment team. Final decisions are made by the admissions teams and the respective faculty and admissions tutors.

Applicants who need support through the admissions process can seek help from the outreach and recruitment team. Once students are enrolled, we provide them with support services and hardship funds. Our goal is to ensure that they have positive experiences in a school where they feel they belong.

In addition to widening access to education, we can articulate our social value missions and reinforce them through our key activities.

While one or two faculty members were skeptical of the progression scheme when it was first introduced, it has proved to be popular with most of the academics on our staff. It also has been well-received by students, and the numbers of applicants have increased year over year.

However, we can definitely improve our efforts. We could put in more work between the recruitment and admissions processes to identify applicants who qualify for the progression scheme. Then, we could monitor their attendance at open days and webinars and continue to track their eligibility for the progression scheme.

An Emphasis on Social Value

Widening access to education is not the only way business schools can raise awareness of DEI among our students. We also can articulate our social value missions and reinforce them through our key activities.

These might include educational offerings and research projects focused on responsible management research or business and community endeavors designed for societal impact. At the University of Bradford, we want our researchers and graduates to support local businesses and communities, and we pursue this goal through various projects.

For instance, we currently have funding from the U.K.’s Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme to develop an analytics model that predicts timelines for tenant payments and required repair or replacement of boilers in apartment buildings before the boilers break. Members of the research team are creating an innovative AI strategy that will allow Bradford’s largest social housing provider to make informed decisions ahead of time, which will have a direct and positive impact on people’s lives.

Driving Real Change

Business schools occupy a pivotal place in the movement toward a more equitable, just, and inclusive society. Because of the immense challenges our world is facing, the social elements of our business education programs are critical.

As educators, we cannot simply transfer information to our students. We have to drive real change. To do that, we should be creating cultures that focus on adding social value. We should be encouraging students to think rationally, embrace resilience, and become well-rounded citizens. We should be developing our graduates into responsible business and corporate leaders who can tackle real issues that are both local and global—and that have the potential to change the world.

Sankar Sivarajah
Dean of the School of Management, Professor of Technology Management and Circular Economy, University of Bradford
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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