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Avoiding analysis of racial disparity in higher education is one way to avoid fixing it

David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson work out what's missing from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report - and wonder why.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The Westminster government has published the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities set up in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last year.

There’s a lively public debate about the way the commission was set up, and the pre-existing views on issues of structural and institutional racism of the key players in the process. Here we’ve naturally looked in detail at what the commission has to say about higher education – and it would be fair to summarise that content as a mixture of hopelessly basic, and offensively selective.

It doesn’t start well. The intro references a whole section on the history curriculum:

The ‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource is our response to negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum. Neither the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement will help to broaden young minds.

Given that neither the banning of White authors nor token expressions of Black achievement will help to broaden young minds, it’s a good job that decolonising the curriculum involves neither of those things, eh.

Getting in

As signalled in the pre-release coverage, the issue of access to higher education is one where the commission notes that (at least at headline sector level) it’s White students that are the least likely to go to university at 32.6 per cent, followed by students from the Mixed (39.0 per cent), Black (47.5 per cent), Asian (53.1 per cent) and Chinese (71.7 per cent) ethnic groups. It also notes that Male White British pupils eligible for free school meals are the least likely of all the main ethnic or social groups to progress to higher education by age 19, at just 12.7 per cent.

There’s some limited recognition outside of the big bullet point headlines that access is uneven – it notes that Black students are the most likely out of the aggregated ethnic groups to attend low tariff universities (1.7 times as likely as White entrants), while 36.3 per cent of White university entrants went to high tariff providers, the highest percentage of all ethnic groups. Black Caribbean pupils are the least likely of the main ethnic groups to progress to the more elite high tariff universities by age 19.

All of the higher education data in the report comes from data sources we’re familiar with – UCAS End of Cycle, and the range of data collected by HESA and others that underpins government statistics on access, participation and graduate destinations. These are not problems that are unknown to the higher education sector – these disparities are easily visible alongside many more on the OfS’ access and participation data dashboard.

Getting across

What’s odd is that a report which in theory is supposed to note disparities, explain them and then make recommendations to address them, is so weak on explaining these access issues.

We “learn” that in focus groups, young people highlighted the need for advice in schools because “relevant insider knowledge” is often not available, and that elite universities “often look for evidence of extra-curricular activity such as volunteering when selecting students”. We also learn that removing the academic, financial and cultural barriers to meeting their ambitions, rather than assuming that ambitions themselves are low, is important – and that this requires “targeted and sustained” engagement with young people, schools and families

to create pathways into higher education.

If that’s feeling familiar to you, you’ll recall a couple of recent reports – from UCAS, the Social Mobility Foundation, and the IFS – have made recommendations on similar lines. The narrative that is now emerging is that access problems are problems concerning the uneven distribution of information.

The report goes on to propose improvements to the quality of, and access to, advice for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – telling us that “stronger advice” should be issued by the Office for Students (OfS) to universities on funding outreach programmes and placing outreach staff in schools to help reduce disparities in applications at an earlier stage. It also says that funding should be informed by “evidence-led” practice to ensure that more children are able to apply to high-tariff institutions, and if guidance from OfS does not lead to strengthened funding for such initiatives, “OfS should look to regulatory or legal changes to ensure improved access and participation to higher education institutions”.

The catch is that nobody is against the provision of more and better advice – we know that students themselves tend to make choices based on conversations with teachers and friends, and to a lesser extent the staff and students of higher education providers. Any initiative to invest in supporting the development of the social capital needed to do this among all prospective students is clearly a good thing – though we note in passing the move away from funding the kinds of projects that do specifically this. But advice and guidance may not solve the whole problem.

Getting on

Contrary to many cynics’ assumptions, the report does notice attainment/awarding gaps. It points out that once at university, ethnic minority students – with the exception of Asian students – are more likely to drop out, and have lower levels of attainment.

It spots that the highest overall non-continuation rate at 15.5 per cent is found amongst Black students, and finds that the pattern holds true even for those in STEM subjects, where Black students had the highest non-continuation rates for STEM students at higher tariff providers, and Black STEM students in providers with medium to low tariffs had the highest non-continuation rates overall.

It also notes that Black students also struggle when it comes to degree class, noting that the most recent data shows White students with the highest percentage of first class degrees at 31.5 per cent and Black students with the lowest percentage at 14.5 per cent. Asian students (23.0 per cent) and those with Mixed ethnicity (26.2 per cent) came in the middle.

So we find that the same groups of students that are struggling to make “good” (read: elite) choices about which university and course to do, also tend to struggle to stay on the courses they do choose. Quite the coincidence.

There’s not a single sentence in the report on what might be causing those yawning awarding disparities, and therefore not a single word on how they might be addressed.

Getting out

The report does note that the major disparities in outcomes experienced at university play into graduate earnings once out – for the cohort that graduated in 2006/07, for example, there are 5 ethnic groups with median earnings less than £30,000: Black African (£29,200), Bangladeshi (£28,500), Black Caribbean (£28,500), other Black ethnic groups (£27,000) and the Pakistani ethnic group (£25,600). The White ethnic group has median earnings of £31,000.

The closest we get to analysis of why this might be is that the report offers possible explanations:

One explanation is that students entering low tariff universities are less able to compete against those from higher tariff universities and are therefore less likely to secure employment in their chosen career. As ethnic minorities are disproportionately more likely to attend these universities, this may limit their employment choices and earnings in later life.

Another explanation is that ethnic minority students, and especially Black students, from lower social status backgrounds are not being well advised on which courses to take at university. About 40% of Black African people and 39% of people from the Bangladeshi ethnic group are overqualified for their roles, compared with 25% of White workers.

Anything on non-continuation, or degree class? Or on the way that employers select applicants? Or access to work experience and networks? Not really.

Instead, it turns out that the same groups of students who apparently struggle to make acceptable choices of course and subject, and struggle to remain on the courses they do choose to study, also struggle to earn salaries as good as other students. If you read through the report, you’ll also note that these same groups also seem to attain less well at levels 2 (GCSE…) and 3 (A Level).

There’s a circularity to the idea that the kinds of courses and subjects that attract students from ethnic minorities also tend to have poorer outcomes. One could argue that a course full of people who are statistically likely to experience poorer outcomes anyway is also likely to see poorer outcomes among its graduates. To be clear, there’s no reason to blame the course, the provider, or the efforts of students in this scenario. So something else must be going on.

The issue of needing access to networks and good careers guidance is the one that kept coming through strongly in focus groups, and the report notes that those whose parents were in high-skilled occupations had typically made more use of formal support services, including university careers services, alongside informal sources of support. Again – historically people in high-skilled occupations tend to have more social capital, and also tend not to be people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

But if that’s an explanation, the recommendations are as weak as they come. DfE is to be asked to explore working with post-16 and post-18 institutions such as UCAS to change the application submission dates for higher education institutions (a strange way of explaining PQA), and the fact that attainment at A level in schools and colleges is the most important factor influencing entry to the highest tariff courses and universities means the solution to equality in the professions that those institutions tend to supply is again one that comes from university outreach teams.

And just back on the “structural”/”institutional” question – if you wanted to, the easiest way to avoid having to say that universities themselves are structurally or institutionally racist would be to take the disparities you are more credibly able to attribute to universities – non-continuation and attainment – and gloss over them quickly. It’s hard to avoid concluding that what we have here is selective avoidance of the evidence to fit a predetermined narrative.

2 responses to “Avoiding analysis of racial disparity in higher education is one way to avoid fixing it

  1. “It’s hard to avoid concluding that what we have here is selective avoidance of the evidence to fit a predetermined narrative.” The bigger problem is the victimology narrative that allows or even drives a large part of the failure to engage issue. Which I suspect comes largely from the white middle classes innate racism/classism and the opportunist virtue signalling it enables, especially around their lumpen BAME tag use, as a minority ethnic I see it as many different ethnicities each with their own societal issues being compressed into a single group all too often used and abused without any understanding if their differences and needs.

  2. “We also learn that removing the academic, financial and cultural barriers to meeting their ambitions, rather than assuming that ambitions themselves are low, is important – and that this requires “targeted and sustained” engagement with young people, schools and families to create pathways into higher education.”

    Perhaps we should just concentrate on the second mentioned among the barriers and ensure that those approaching higher education from a disadvantaged standpoint have enough money to concentrate on their studies.

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