Unconscious and implicit bias in admissions

Higher Education staff strive to remain as objective and as consistent as possible in their procedures for the recruitment and admission of students. There are also many decisions across the communication of, selection to and support for HE entry that are justifiably subjective: applicants, advisers and HE staff all make judgements in identifying the best match. However, subjective decisions based on unconscious biases (those we are unaware we have) or implicit biases (those fundamental to misconceptions we are aware of) can lead to unfair discrimination, interfere with identifying the best match and perpetuate barriers. Such unintended biases will exist across all involved, so it is important for HE providers to raise awareness, promote understanding and develop mechanisms to support informed judgement, not only for their own staff, but for applicants and for their advisers as well..

According to the Equality Challenge Unit:

  • Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.
  • As we become aware of our biases they surface from our unconscious and we are able to recognise them and find ways to minimise their impact on our behaviour and decisions. Implicit bias is used to signify this move from the unconscious and to remind us of our increased responsibility to be proactive in identifying, acknowledging and managing our biases so that they do not compromise our behaviour.

ECU has already developed extensive resources on unconscious and implicit bias, including a literature review and training pack. Although primarily designed with the recruitment of HE staff in mind, most of it is directly applicable to student recruitment, and we consider it the definitive reference point. We highly recommend you download the materials from the ECU website.

SPA has created some additional materials to help HE providers add the specific context of student recruitment and admission when considering ECU's materials within their own institution. Download:

We would be very interested to hear of any examples of good practice in this area, including on training staff and raising awareness. Please contact us with any information you would be happy to share, or to discuss this topic further with us.