A Critique of Admissions and Interview Processes to Higher Education, Art & Design Courses in the context of Widening Participation and Social Mobility

The following piece was written in September 2012 as part of my PGCHE studies with the University of Kent.  The theme is that of widening participation in HE.

A critique of admissions and interview processes to Higher Education, Art & Design Courses in the context of Widening Participation and Social Mobility.

by Tim Bones © 2012

Widening Participation: Background & Definitions

“Widening participation in its recent manifestation begins in the late 1990s, more specifically in 1997 when [Tony] Blair and New Labour came to office on a campaign centered around “education, education, education’” (Bhaghat & O’Neil, 2011). In the September of 1999, Blair set a “target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century” (Blair, 1999). Arguably, the project may have been overly ambitious with entry to higher education for 17-30 year olds at 39.2% in 2000 and moving to just 39.8% in 2008 (Gill, 2008), and finally up to 43% by 2010 at the end of their term (Chowdry, et al 2008). However, this is a significant achievement when one considers that overall participation was just 5% in 1960. (Baker, 2010)

More recently, and of particular significance to widening participation, was the coming of the new coalition government that gave rise to significant increases in tuition fees. Partly to justify these fee increases and to ensure that universities would continue to increase participation amongst disadvantaged students, The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) introduced access agreements to regulate and enforce widening participation. For an HEI to fail to do so can lead to fines being taken “from the university or college’s grant” or it may ultimately prevent a university from charging “tuition fees above the standard level for a period after its access agreement has expired” (OFFA, 2012). A key part of OFFA’s widening participation policy is to reduce “the barriers to higher education for students from low income and other under-represented groups by ensuring that institutions continue to invest in outreach and financial support” (OFFA, 2012).

At the time of writing this it is evident that even with policy enforced directives designed to enable social mobility across higher education, the “elite universities have failed to make significant progress in attracting students from poorer backgrounds”, with the University of Cambridge being the “UK’s least socially diverse higher education institution” (Grove, 2012)

The following are working definitions of widening participation. HEFCE’s policy summarises widening participation as being “a broad expression that covers many aspects of participation in HE, including fair access and social mobility”  (HEFCE, 2012).

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) states that “Both ‘widening participation’ and ‘fair access’ involve removing the barriers to higher education, including financial barriers, that students from lower income and other under-represented backgrounds face.” The notion of enforced policy to widen participation remains a contentious political issue, with the Labour Party being “particularly interested in pushing the widening participation agenda”, whilst the “Conservative Party has been particularly critical of attempts to widen access” with some viewing wider access as social engineering that could compromise the quality of higher education and which might also disadvantage those from the independent school sector (Taylor et al, 2004).

Interview Processes for Art & Design Courses

Art and design courses may have a particularly unique process of selection when compared with more traditional, academic courses. As well as the consideration of grade attainment—either from A levels or diploma equivalents—creative courses normally use a student’s portfolio of creative work as the main determinant of who is admitted to HE Art & Design degrees (McManus, 2011).

In most cases the applicant’s portfolio is viewed during an interview. In this situation, the student usually has the opportunity to discuss their work, and is expected to demonstrate—amongst many other varied and extensive things (see appendix 1)—their current creative skills and a readiness to engage with the course. In some instances course staff may simply request that the student leave their portfolio for viewing without an interview, and as such the course staff arrive at their decision based upon the UCAS application form and the portfolio alone.

One might argue that this process is fair, as it may help admissions staff form judgments based upon merit rather than the applicants’ personality or any potential bias based upon perceived background or cultural attributes. However, like many others—myself included—Dean, (2011) views the art & design interview as a “means to step outside of portfolio scores and qualifications to reach other kinds of understanding of the individual.”

These ‘other kinds of understanding’ are what might be referred to as ‘contextual data’. Contextual data is information that might be used “in addition to the stated qualifications and criteria for entry when considering applications for courses at universities and colleges” (SPA, 2011). An example of this would be the portfolio of creative work brought to interview by art and design students. On occasion this portfolio of contextual data might prove to be a greater determinant of skill, commitment and creativity than ‘A’ level results.

It is this data that Professor Les Ebdon, Director of OFFA is keen for HEIs to consider—though not enforce—as part of the admissions process (OFFA, 2012). Critics of OFFA’s policies and its efforts to have contextual data considered as a means of supporting social mobility and access to HE, claim that it will lead to a move “away from academic rigour and high standards” (Wilson, 2012), and have gone so far as to disparagingly refer to OFFA as the “Office for Social Engineering” (Wilson, 2012).  Conversely, others view the use of contextual data in admissions as being not so much a mechanism for social engineering, “but rather an acknowledgment that exam results in certain subjects alone paint a rather limited picture of a candidate’s ability and aptitude” (Burns, 2012). Particularly for Art & Design courses, the interview can give a substantial amount of contextual data about a student and their approaches to the creative process.

Agreeing about how one goes about using or measuring both the contextual data and the outcome of an interview is not easy.  Burke & McManus (2011), observed and questioned many of the accepted admissions processes of five UK Higher Education, Art & Design courses in different institutions where it was found that in some instances during the interview process, the decisions and judgements that were being reached regarding acceptance were, on occasion, being blatantly influenced by tutors’ perceptions of the interviewees’ class and cultural values, with middle class students being interviewed favourably, and to a lesser degree there were also inferences that the ethnicity of the interviewee may also have played a part in determining selection.

The K College Interview Process

All HE Graphic Design course applicants apply to K college via UCAS (The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). Traditionally for Art & Design courses there were two routes of application, now there is just the one.  The applicant’s form is sent to our HE admissions department, where it is then forwarded to the Programme leader for processing. The form contains the following information:

  • Qualifications/Predicted Grades
  • Personal Statement
  • Reference
  • Current institution of study (if applicable)
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Nationality

The form may give the processing tutor an immediate impression of the applicant’s profile and their achievements to date. The Programme Leader can see if the applicant has the required entry qualifications or if it is predicted that they will gain them. The personal statement can be revealing, as this can give an insight into an applicant’s career aspirations and their creative activity to date.

Of particular interest to the team are the referee’s comments. If completed—which very often it is not—one can gain an insight into how the student has performed throughout their course, their predicted grades and design interests.

When the interviewees arrive at the college, they are given a talk by the course staff about what to expect, this includes such topics as course content, expectations and timetables. This usually lasts for about half and hour. We also show the work of former students to give prospective students an idea of the types of projects they will work on and the various design approaches that can be taken. This session also gives the student the opportunity to raise questions.

Following the initial talk the students are then asked to leave their portfolios behind and to leave the room. This is done so that the interviewing staff can view and comment upon the students’ work with a view to arrive at a judgement or recommendation. The portfolio viewing is important and decisive moment in determining an applicant’s potential for the course. The viewing can be a somewhat subjective process, with the admissions tutors simply using a relatively tacit, yet generally agreed understanding of what constitutes the right level and quality of work for entry, and despite using what we have always deemed to be a fair process, it is clear that from the observations of (Burke & McManus, 2011)—which will be discussed shortly—that the process we currently use is potentially at fault and almost certainly requires reviewing. It is during this brief session that staff will be looking for evidence of the following:

Quality of work

This not only includes the ability to execute a work with reasonable proficiency (for age and level) but also quality in the sense of presentation. Ideally we are looking for work that has been cared for; being clinically clean and meticulously well presented.

Evidence of creativity

Is the work striking in its approach or concept? Is there an indication that the interviewee has initiative and/or an unusual or fresh way of approaching the creative process? Once we arrive at judgments, we then invite the students in to be interviewed one at a time.

The Interview

The interview is the key part of the art & design selection process, one in which the aforementioned contextual data comes into consideration. As McManus, (2006) suggests, “When portfolios are good, the interview is largely a formality, when they are in the mid range (the majority) then tutors use the interview to assess such ‘attributes’ as motivation, enthusiasm and interest and whether these were students they could teach.”

This interview allows the student the opportunity to discuss their work and ask any questions that they might not have wanted to when in the group address. The questions vary depending on the member of staff, the information that they want to glean from the applicant, and their approaches to interviewing applicants, along with their teaching and interviewing experience.

The approaches to interviewing applicants within our team are varied. In recalling my own indelible memories of several varied and tough interview approaches that I experienced when applying for art college, my own approach to interviewing is to always try and put the applicant at ease, as I feel that the process can appear intimidating, even for the most confident of students, and I believe that the process should be a mutually positive one regardless of outcome.

One of my colleagues who has been teaching for more than 30 years and who has taught in colleges of good repute has a markedly different approach to me, one that brings to mind my own experience of being interviewed for a college place. Employing a somewhat authoritative tone and slightly interrogative approach, his questions are almost always the same, and generally include the following:

  • What books have your read recently?
  • Tell me about the last exhibition you went to?
  • Tell me about the last film you watched at the cinema?
  • What newspaper do you read?
  • Tell me about the any designers who influence your work?

This line of questioning can be useful to identify a candidate’s interests and influences, but as McManus et al, (2005) noticed when observing art & design interviews, that these lists of questions often require “almost canonical ‘right’ answers”, and of the ability to discuss work and articulate ideas, MacManus suggests that “some applicants, predominantly those who are middle class, are able to talk their way onto the course.”  Of this ability Reid, (2007) notes, “Being able to ‘talk’ your way onto an Art and Design course requires a number of skills and attributes.” Reid suggests that in order to do this with confidence one requires a “familiarity with the linguistic conventions of the art and design community,” and that this familiarity is “far more likely to create a favourable impression on the interviewers,” adding that, “The interview in particular, the chief tool to filter applicants post-assessment of a portfolio of work, that is the most important causal factor in the low conversion rate from applications to places from working class, ‘disadvantaged’ or underrepresented, applicants.”

McManus’s observations appear to suggest that tutors may often expect these young applicants, whose average age is 17-18 years old, to possess an unrealistic amount of what Bourdieu, (1986) referred to ‘cultural and social capital’. As Reid, (2007) suggests, this form of knowledge and understanding “equips an individual with empathy towards, appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artifacts.” Adding that, “social and cultural capital is unequally distributed among the social classes.” As such, the often ‘high’ cultural values and experiences that a mature, middle class lecturer may hold, may not be the entirely appropriate ones by which to judge the abilities of a young, less culturally experienced or under-privileged person. Yet this approach is one that both my colleagues and myself are unquestionably guilty of using to a certain degree, albeit unwittingly until now.

Again, in relation to tutor expectations, Burke & McManus (2011), observed that,

One of the most striking themes to emerge from the data was the wide range of expectations of the candidates that admissions tutors bring to their decision-making and the selection process. The sheer breadth of the different kinds of characteristics and attributes the admissions tutors cited in terms of what they were looking for in potential students for their courses is noteworthy. For example, the expectations included the following points.

  • Wide knowledge of contemporary art
  • Ability to develop ideas, visually and conceptually
  • Demonstrate potential
  • Critical analysis and thought-process
  • Communication of ideas
  • Enthusiasm
  • Motivation

(The full list can be seen in Appendix 1)

Perhaps we should not be entirely surprised by the exacting selection processes and middle class cultural bias that Burke and McManus observed, particularly when one considers that many of the teaching staff on HE graphic design courses will have come to teaching from careers within the Graphic Design industry, particularly its primary manifestation, advertising, an industry that has traditionally been perceived as a workforce consisting of  “middle class, public school and Oxbridge educated individuals” (McLeod et al, 2009).


The findings, particularly that of Burke & McManus highlight a need for a far greater institutional awareness of how widening participation can be supported and implemented prior to, and during the admissions and interview process. Despite the numerous flaws identified within the general system of interviewing for art & design courses, I am inclined to agree with Burke and McManus when they conclude that it is “crucial to resist the creation of a ‘how to’ list, or a set of tick boxes” and that there should be “no universal rules [for interviewing] to ensure inclusion, equality and anti-discrimination, not least because these issues are contextual and different individuals bring to those contexts complex formations of identity.” Instead they propose a set of recommendations that appear to be devised to encourage an awareness of how the process should be conducted in order to be more inclusive. For example, interviewing staff should avoid many of the typically used questions that could be perceived as being “value loaded”. Instead questions should be designed to “value different sets of experiences and perspectives, taking into account the candidates’ age and socio-cultural background” (Burke & McManus, 2011).

This awareness of process should be the responsibility of all staff who deal with students either directly or indirectly. At a more personal level, I have used and discussed the findings of this essay with colleagues and intend to make explicit amongst colleagues these recommendations to enhance what was probably a rather tacit and routine interview process. Of particular note, I am concerned about not making judgments based upon our own individual or collective cultural values. These judgements, of course have to be reasoned in that within the context of widening participation, staff still must be sure that the consideration of any contextual data helps them decide whether or not an applicant is likely to thrive or struggle throughout the course.

It perhaps should be considered that these recommendations make their way into our college’s admissions policy, because as Davies, (2000) put it, “Widening participation is about changing the system to value diversity—so that selectivity and privilege are no longer normalized around notions of ‘quality’ and the ‘best’ student. It’s all about ‘fairness for the future’ and maximizing opportunity for all.”

Also, perhaps prior to the applications process, it might be that as a teaching and admissions staff we identify and go to schools and colleges to perhaps prime students about the interview process, to help demystify it somewhat and to support potential applicants with preparing their portfolios for discussion, particularly given that as HEFCE, (2002) point out, “the portfolio process is complex and pupils in schools in deprived areas where admission to art school is a rarity are often ill equipped to develop a portfolio of a high standard.”

Bibliography & References

Baker, M. 2010,
University target under pressure
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Blair, T. 1999,
Tony Blair’s speech in full
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Burns, L. 2012,
Les Ebdon is the right choice to lead university access watchdog
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Burke & McManus, 2009
Art for a few
Exclusion and Misrecognition in Art and Design Higher Education Admissions
National Arts Learning Network (NALN) Research Report

Chowdry,H., Crawford, C., Dearden, L., Goodman, A., & Vignoles, A. 2008,
Widening Participation in Higher Education:
Analysis using Linked Administrative Data
The Institute for Fiscal Studies

Davies, D. 2000,
Widening Participation as Lifelong Learning
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Dean, F. 2011,
Dipti Bhagat and Peter O’Neill (eds)
Border Crossings: In/exclusion and Higher Education in Art & Design
Inclusive Practices, Inclusive Pedagogies
Learning from Widening Participation Research in Art and Design Higher Education. (CHEAD)

Gill, J. 2008,
Labour concedes that it won’t deliver its 50% target on time
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Grove, J. 2012,
Offa finds Oxbridge access growth at a plateau
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Hoare, A & Johnston, R. 2011,
Widening participation through admissions policy – a British case study of school and university performance
Studies in Higher Education, 36:1, 21-41
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HEFCE. 2012,
Widening participation policy
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Social Class and Participation
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A research project commissioned by the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design (CHEAD)

McManus, J. 2011
Dipti Bhagat and Peter O’Neill (eds)
Every word starts with ‘dis’: the impact of class on choice, application and admissions to prestigious higher education art and design courses.
Inclusive Practices, Inclusive Pedagogies
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Appendix 1.

– wide knowledge of contemporary art
– some knowledge of fashion designability
– ability to visually interpret
– ability to develop ideas, visually and conceptually
– breadth of understanding of various media
– critical understanding
– particular interest
– demonstrate potential
– expected to visit the college/course/site
– willingness to budget for and cover the cost of resources
– has an easy journey into college
– ‘unusual’
– ‘on the edge of society’
– looking for evidence of inspiration
– critical analysis and thought-process
– use of colour
– communication of ideas
– enthusiasm
– motivation
– good at self-promotion
– vibrant
– strong visual portfolio
– ‘talk really well’
– great team player
– ‘incredibly interesting’
– ‘incredibly entertaining’
– creative mind
– invention
– wit
– reflective
– organised
– ability to meet deadlines
– putting it on paper–in words
– not averse to writing
– ability to express themselves
– ‘have they got something to say’
– onus on student to know about the course
– attended an open day
– ‘You know it when you see it’
–  knowledge of technology and computers

Burke & McManus, 2011