Can Removing Names From College and Job Applications Cut Discrimination?

A new effort launched by British Prime Minister David Cameron seeks to level the playing field.
(Photo: Christopher Futcher/Getty Images)

Oct 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Tough admissions exams, essays, and looming deadlines—when it comes to applying to college, there’s plenty for students to stress out over. Now U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron hopes to take one worry off students’ plate: discrimination.

According to a new effort announced by Cameron on Monday, starting in 2017, the admissions committees at British universities, including prestigious Cambridge and Oxford, will no longer be able to tell if a prospective student is named Joe, José, Jamal, or Jenna.

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And once that student graduates, his or her name will also be hidden on job applications at public and private companies that employ 1.8 million people, including the British Civil Service, the BBC, and the National Health Service, as well as HSBC, Deloitte, Virgin Money, and KPMG.

“Those assessing applications will not be able to see the person’s name, so the ethnic or religious background it might imply cannot influence their prospect,” Cameron wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian on Monday.

“Today we are delivering on that commitment and extending opportunity to all. If you’ve got the grades, the skills and the determination, this government will ensure that you can succeed,” he continued.

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According to Cameron, Britain’s top universities “make offers to 55 percent of white applicants, but only to 23 percent of black ones. The reasons are complex, but unconscious bias is clearly a risk,” he wrote.

In a statement on its website, Mary Curnock Cook, the CEO of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which processes the online applications for nearly all higher-education institutions in the U.K., called Cameron’s announcement “a good time to consider such changes as part of the wider redevelopment of our application management service.“

The UCAS also posted data on its website showing that the number of “young students from black and ethnic minority groups” at state schools increased from about 21 percent in 2006 to roughly 34 percent in 2014, a 64 percent jump.

However, despite that improvement, Cameron called discrimination in the U.K. a “disgrace.” He referenced a speech he gave two weeks ago in which he shared an anecdote about a young black woman who told him she was advised by a career counselor to alter her name on her résumé to something less ethnic-sounding. Black folks in the U.K. are nearly three times as likely to be unemployed as their white peers. But once the woman started going by “Elizabeth” on her résumé, she began receiving calls from hiring managers.

The need to “whiten” a résumé is a phenomenon that happens across the pond in the United States too. Last fall a Los Angeles man named José Zamora made a heartbreaking video in which he explained how the phone calls from hiring managers only began rolling in after he switched his name to “Joe.”

Of course, Cameron’s critics have previously pointed out that the prime minister’s policies and budget cuts have made it tougher to bring discrimination suits against employers in Britain. Cameron acknowledged that he “hasn’t always gotten things 100 percent right.” And despite the shift to anonymous applications, “the long march to an equal society isn’t over,” he wrote.