The story of race and higher education is often framed as a positive one: ethnic minority pupils have higher aspirations than their white British counterparts, and are now much more likely to attend university.
But there’s a less positive story out there, too: that once BME students enter university, they have worse experiences, and worse outcomes. One such outcome has become of increasing concern: the “attainment gap”, or the difference in the proportion of white British students and BME students who achieve a “good” degree outcome (a 1st or a 2:1).
New research has now uncovered the extent of this gap, and the challenge of tackling it. Ethnic minorities not only get worse degree outcomes than their white counterparts – they do worse even when they had the same or better grades at school.
This means that the university attainment gap cannot be explained by “prior attainment”, or how well pupils did at school. Even the highest performing ethnic minority A level pupils – those achieving 4 As – are less likely to get a first or 2:1 at university compared to their white peers.
Source: Runnymede Trust.
The gap is just as large for high-performing Chinese graduates as it is for high performing Black graduates, and persists for every level of prior attainment: in other words, no matter the achievement of pupils in school. Similarly, the report finds that ethnic minority graduates experience worse labour market outcomes regardless of what they study, their degree result, or other socio-demographic characteristics (eg class). This racial gap in employment outcomes persists even three years after graduation.
Another way to put it is that no matter how smart or hard working, BME pupils do worse in university compared to how well they did in school. And they do worse in the labour market compared to how well they did at university (controlling for class, prior attainment, subject studied).
This is perhaps less surprising given longstanding evidence of racial discrimination in the labour market. A recent study from Nuffield College, Oxford confirmed five decades of previous research, showing that BME people have to send in 60 per cent more CVs even when they have same qualifications. This is clear evidence of racial discrimination in the labour market, evidence that it’s barely changed over 50 years.
The idea that such evidence extends to higher education will be less surprising to BME students and staff, who fully realise race matters, and unconscious bias and racial discrimination exist even in our most self-described liberal institutions.
If ethnic inequalities can’t be explained by prior attainment in school, which subjects people study, or their social class background, then we need targeted interventions that tackle ethnic inequalities more directly.
The OFS-commissioned research shows the importance of data collection, to understand the nature of outcomes for BME students from admissions to retention to progression and success. Given there are significant differences between ethnic minority groups, and individual universities will need to ensure their interventions match their particular inequalities, generic “ethnic minority” targeting may not always be appropriate.
Data gathering is necessary, but it can’t create change by itself. Instead, every university needs a clear action plan, including developing targeted measures where appropriate. While admissions or “access” remains an important area, without an action plan to address the range of racial inequalities in higher education, the danger is these interventions won’t have their intended effect.
Consider the link between the BME attainment gap and the lack of black female professors – 25 in the whole of the UK – and which a report published yesterday described as involving bullying and discrimination. We know that black students are less likely to get a first and less likely to go to “prestigious” universities. This is the key route to getting a (paid) PhD fellowship/studentship, and given their higher rates of poverty (49 per cent of black children, 54 per cent of Pakistani children and 59 per cent of Bangladeshi children live in poverty) very few BME students can self-fund their doctorate. BME students are also less likely to enjoy their university experience, meaning they are less likely to consider doctoral training and life in a university culture. Many who do get PhDs leave higher education. My organisation, the Runnymede Trust, probably employs more BME PhDs (four) than most university departments.
This is a vicious circle: fewer BME, especially black women, university professors means BME students of today do less well, enjoy university less, which means they are less likely to be professors of tomorrow. While some argue that demographics will improve representation, that’s far too complacent about past, current & future underrepresentation. There are today 3,000 black female students for every black female professor, compared to 50 white male students for every white male professor. In other words, you’re 60 times more likely to see a professor who looks like you if you’re white and male than if you’re black and female.
The “pipeline” is stuck at every level. There are too few BME professors, sometimes explained by the relatively few BME PhDs say 40 years ago. The same excuse cannot apply to the readers or senior managers in universities today: the 40-year-old UK population is already 20 per cent BME, while the research councils and universities are still not doing enough to retain and progress BME PhDs today. We need interventions, including the use of positive action, at every level, and in administrative and management roles as much as in academic and research positions.
Universities therefore need a systemic action plan to tackle racial inequalities from admissions to retention to progression to success, and from academic and administrative representation to the curriculum. The report published for Office for Students outlines ten interventions currently successfully being implemented.
If universities are to finally tackle racial inequalities in higher education, they will have to build on these interventions and develop institution-wide approaches that more effectively and comprehensively tackles the gap between their rhetoric on equality, non-discrimination and fairness, and the experience of BME students and staff.
Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust.