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BME students need more than a place at Oxford

Prime Minister is right to focus on race and to question admissions data. Chris Hall argues that we must not let a media frenzy focussed on one issue, predominantly at one university, distract us from the wider issues that we need to address.
This article is more than 5 years old

Chris Hall is Head of External Relations for Equality Challenge Unit.

Dr Nicola Rollock wrote in the Guardian two weeks ago that “persistent race inequalities in higher education receive little attention, either in the media or in the sector itself.” But the piece by the Prime Minister in The Sunday Times, that accuses universities of holding “ingrained, institutional and insidious” attitudes towards race, has changed all that.

Any politician who is willing to engage in conversations about race should be commended, and the Prime Minister is right in questioning admissions data. However, we must not let a media frenzy focussed on one issue, predominantly at one university, distract us from the wider issues that we need to address.

Participation is important, but not the biggest problem

Supporting the recent launch of Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter, Jo Johnson, the Science and Universities Minister recognised the Charter’s role in helping the government aspiration of seeing 20% more Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students entering higher education by 2020.

Let me state upfront – increasing participation of our BME students in highly selective universities is important. But it is not the only key issue affecting BME students.

ECU was, of course, grateful to have ministerial support. But his, and the Prime Minister’s focus on participation risks creating a smokescreen hiding the frankly appalling retention, attainment and destination statistics underlying the experience faced by BME students. These are issues which led Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon to state at the launch of the Charter “higher education has been abysmal and slow to engage with racial inequalities that exist”. But first the good news.

Participation: on the increase

In the last ten years, there has been a 29% increase in the number of UK domiciled BME students studying in higher education. As a proportion, BME students now make up 20.2% of students in 2013/14.

Against a backdrop of a BME population in the UK of 14% (Census 2011), BME students are well represented across UK HEIs. Even looking across the Russell Group there is relatively good participation. In 2013/14, 17.6% of students studying at Russell Group universities were BME.

However, the data becomes more depressing as we follow the students through their journey.

More UK BME students are unable to continue or qualify from their degree courses than White British students. The data is stark: 91.8% of White UK entrants continued or qualified compared to 87.9% of BME entrants. In 2013/14, only 84.9% of students from a Black background continued or qualified (a 6.9 percentage point difference).

Mind the (massive) attainment gap

More than twice as many BME students now receive a first or 2:1 than ten years ago. But behind this positive looking story the attainment data is, to say the least, challenging.

The ‘attainment gap’, i.e. the gap between White British students and BME students being awarded a 1st or 2:1 is currently 15.2%.

Within all UK universities (including the Russell group), 80.3% of UK domiciled first-degree undergraduate qualifiers aged 21 and under who were white women left their university with a first class (‘first’) or upper second class (2:1) degree. This compares against 74.5% of white male qualifiers, 66.9% of BME female qualifiers and 62.6% of BME men. The largest attainment gap is a massive 31% between white women and Black men.

Within the Russell group, 90.4% of white female qualifiers received a first/2:1, compared with 84.8% of white male qualifiers, 82.0% of BME female qualifiers and 76.1% of BME male qualifiers.

With raw data like this, ECU presumed there must be other factors at play. We, therefore, undertook analysis where we controlled for gender, Russell Group membership, socioeconomic class and state school marker (that is, assume all is equal about these characteristics). The results were stark. The odds of being awarded a first/2:1 were 43% lower for a BME qualifier than a white qualifier. These findings are consistent with OFFA’s latest briefing on differential degree outcomes and HEFCE’s issues paper ‘Differences in degree outcomes’.

ECU provided this information to the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit last week and will be publishing our findings soon.

And where then?

BME students also have less favourable employment outcomes than white students. On leaving our institutions, 61.5% of white students entered full-time work, 49.7% entering professional full-time work. This compares to 53% and 41.3% of BME students respectively. I can, of course, speculate on the reasons behind this disparity, but if you are a BME student, it is the outcome that matters, not what is causing it.

The chances of BME students being taught by a BME academic are also relatively slim. Only 8.3 per cent of academics are from a BME background; Black academics are half as likely to be a professor, and ECU research suggests that those BME academics that we do have are more tempted than their white counterparts to flee to overseas institutions to progress their careers.

BME students choosing a career in academia could find it harder to be offered a permanent contract and to progress beyond the Senior Lecturer glass ceiling. Not the most appealing career prospect.

How do we solve this?

Transparency is important. But the reality is many universities are already publishing data on BME participation. Oxford was keen to point out that they already do this.

Yet data and transparency alone are not going to deliver any change. They are only the starting point. What is required by the sector is an honest and open conversation about why the outcomes for our BME students are so different.

ECU has been working with the sector to develop a framework to facilitate meaningful thought to tackle the current significant waste of talent. Over the last five years, we have developed a Race Equality Charter, which launched last month.

The charter includes acknowledging the complexity and often covert nature of racial inequalities and that BME individuals are not a homogenous group. Crucially it requires addressing institutional and cultural barriers faced by staff and students to deliver long-term institutional change.

Eight universities have already been successful in the pilot stage. And, even before the heightened press coverage over the weekend, the University of Oxford’s vice chancellor committed last week to submitting a Race Equality Charter application next year.

Beyond the charter, proposals in the Green Paper for the metrics in the TEF to be broken down and reported by disadvantaged backgrounds and underrepresented groups are welcome.

And clearly, the Office of Fair Access has a key role. The green paper, also set out that the government intends to ‘issue new guidance to the Director of Fair Access ‘to focus on the progression and success of those particular groups where there is evidence that more needs to be done, for example the progression of white males from disadvantaged backgrounds and also the success of BME groups in higher education, where this is lagging’.

I do not believe that there is a single vice-chancellor out there that wants to see their BME students do less well. However, the data speaks loudly enough – there’s a problem. It’s now time to face up to the challenge and stem the incredible loss of talent from our sector, for the benefit of everyone.

4 responses to “BME students need more than a place at Oxford

  1. Excellent balanced view on what is an on-going scandal for Universities. Achievement and progression do require a new focus as they are distinct from admissions. Recruitment is however the essential pre-requisite for BME applicants and my own concern is that the more apparently rigorous the admissions process, the more scope there is for discrimination.

  2. As you correctly point out, there are often more limited career opportunities for BME graduates after study. Whilst we no longer have the situation when, if you didn’t go into a profession, the only roles were in diversity-related posts, the career ladder for BME students often misses the top rungs. Income disparity between white and BME graduates becomes greater the more qualified one becomes.

    Universities have made great strides in opening up places but the attitudinal and cultural issues, coupled with stereotyping and nepotism in employment make things very difficult for BME graduates in an increasingly competitive world.

  3. What’s missing here is data on the IQs of students. IQ is the best predictor of academic and career success. Unless you control for that, your data are meaningless.

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