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Why is Ucas pigeonholing students into ethnic groups?

31 May 2018

3:45 PM

31 May 2018

3:45 PM

David Lammy is upset again, as he is every week. This time it is thanks to data released by Ucas, which reveals that while black applicants make up nine per cent of the total, they account for 52 per cent of those whose applications have been flagged up for possible cheating – either because they may have falsified qualifications, used fake identities, sent false documents or because an algorithm has picked out their personal statement. According to Lammy, it is not good enough Ucas simply publishing this data – he says that the organisation ‘needs to be able to explain this huge disproportionality and satisfy students from ethnic minorities that their applications will be looked upon fairly’.

I think we can take it for granted what Lammy really wants: for Ucas to apologise, admit to some unspecified form of institutional bias and send its staff for diversity training – effectively making them think twice before they dare to accuse a black applicant of trying to cheat the system. What I suspect he doesn’t envisage Ucas doing is launching a proper, comprehensive investigation asking why the ‘disproportionality’ exists – or indeed whether it really is a statistically significant or just a quirk. We know from Lammy’s previous investigation into the experience of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system how he operates. He wants to make a loud noise, drop in a vague accusation of racial discrimination and force organisations into apologetic mode – when a proper examination of the data shows that no discrimination is taking place. The Lammy report was widely reported as having exposed racial discrimination in the criminal justice system when the actual data suggested otherwise – conviction rates showed up as much the same among BAME defendants in jury trials as it did for white defendants. Moreover, black suspects were slightly less likely to be charged by the Crown Prosecution Service than white ones. Yet the government folded in the face of Lammy’s onslaught and more or less confessed that discrimination was taking place – presumably because it found it politically easier to do so.  

If we are not prepared to study alleged ethnic disparities properly, why are we collecting data based on ethnicity at all? We don’t collect data on university applications broken down by applicants’ hair colour, waist size, height and so on, so why ethnicity?

Of course, when the Blair government started collecting ethnicity data its intentions were benign – it was trying to identify unintentional bias rather than establish anything more sinister. Yet still I feel there is something deeply unhealthy about the state trying to pigeonhole us into ethnic groups. It is nonsense in any case, given how many of us have mixed backgrounds which make it hard for us to be defined as any single brand of ‘ethnicity’ (which, let’s face it, is just a polite word for ‘race’). Moreover, all official data on the subject is based on us self-defining our ethnicity. If I decide I feel Polynesian when I visit the doctors, Black-Caribbean when I fill in my tax return and a Gypsy-Traveller when I submit a planning application for a static caravan, there is absolutely nothing that the public service with which I am interacting can do about it.

What we have ended up with a vast industry of data collection, the fruits of which are effectively only allowed to be used for one thing: feeding identity and victim politics. How much better if the state abolished the whole exercise and defined us all simply as human – and tackled things such as fraudulent university applications without regard to ethnicity. As I wrote in The Spectator in 2002, when public bodies first started collecting ethnicity data, I was going to boycott the whole business. I have stuck to that promise ever since – refusing ever to fill in a box asking me for my ethnicity. I wish others would do the same and starve the victim industry of the data it needs in order to function.


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