Education: Our disappearing black stars

It's not just women who seem to be underperforming at Cambridge, ethnic minority students are too - despite being equally well qualified when they arrive. Why? Patrick Leman unpicks the curious and unsettling results of his research

The relatively poor academic performance of women undergraduates at Oxbridge has been a cause for concern for some time. At the end of their studies proportionately more men achieve the top (first-class) marks while more women achieve second-class marks. Recently the University of Cambridge funded a large-scale exploration of some of the social factors that might relate to differences in academic performance among undergraduates.

The study analysed the finals results of all Cambridge undergraduates in 1997 and 1998. These revealed that not just gender but also a student's ethnic origin and school background have an influence on the marks they achieve. It also emerged that the connection between achievement and social factors varies widely in different disciplines.

For example, although men outperform women in mathematics, the clear high performers in maths are students from ethnic minorities: 40 per cent of students from all ethnic minorities were awarded a mathematics first compared to 33 per cent of white students. However, students from ethnic minorities do not perform as well in history, where they are awarded 12 per cent fewer firsts, 10 per cent fewer 2(1)s and 20 per cent more 2(2)s than their white contemporaries.

One particular ethnic group, black students, is performing very poorly across the university. Only 3 per cent of black students achieved a first class in the two years studied; while 16 per cent were awarded a third class (compared to a Cambridge average of 2.6 per cent).

The analysis also threw up some seemingly odd patterns. For example, students who described their ethnic background as Indian performed strongly compared to other ethnic groups. But this was only true of Indian students from independent schools - more than 30 per cent of whom were awarded firsts. Indian students from state schools performed very poorly and only 5 per cent were awarded first-class marks.

What is so striking about these results is that previous educational achievement - typically GCSE and A-level scores - is pretty much "fixed" at Cambridge. Most students have been the highest achievers at school, and so it is tempting to ascribe the differences at finals to something within the Cambridge system. Perhaps a stuffy, male-dominated, public school atmosphere within many colleges militates against the success of certain students?

However, social class was unrelated to marks in finals. And, contrary to suspicions, students coming to Cambridge from the independent sector do not outperform their contemporaries from state schools across the university.

But a student's school background does seem to have an effect in somesubjects. For example, while women and men studying law at Cambridge performed equally well, those from comprehensive and grammar schools achieved significantly more first-class marks (17 per cent) than those from independent schools (11 per cent). In history, on the other hand, 24 per cent of students from independent schools were awarded firsts compared to 8 per cent from comprehensive schools.

A popular explanation for sex differences in performance at undergraduate level has been that men and women have different written styles in exams. Men, as nature's "hunters", are more inclined to take risks and hence display more of the originality required for first-class marks. Women, as "nurturers", play their final exams safer - producing competent but not exceptional, second-class work.

But much of this explanation goes out of the window in light of results from the Cambridge study. Not only are there a number of instances of women out-performing men in some subjects (the biological sciences, for example). The differences in performance of students from different ethnic groups, and from different school backgrounds, suggest an alternative explanation.

The subject a student studies is clearly a very important factor in terms of academic performance at Cambridge. For a start, different disciplines award wildly different proportions of firsts, 2(1)s etc. So even though women get far fewer firsts in maths than men, and men and women get the same number of firsts in law, a woman mathematician still stands almost twice as much chance of getting a first than her lawyer friend.

But what also emerges from the Cambridge results is the rather particular way in which different social factors (gender, ethnicity and school background) have influences on performance in different disciplines. It is almost as if each subject has its own profile in terms of which students - male or female, black or white, and so on - will succeed.

One explanation for these subject-area differences might be that the social expectations of a student's teachers and peers might have an influence on individual confidence levels. For example, if there is a general expectation that a brilliant young physicist will more likely be male, a brilliant young woman might find it more difficult to convince her teachers (and college peers) of her ability. Similarly, if there is a prevailing belief that the skills required for excellence at history are better honed at an independent school, a student from a comprehensive may find it difficult to fit the mould, and he may find less expectation of success from his teachers and peers.

Clearly, a next step is to discover how far the results at Cambridge extend across British universities. Previous studies of gender and performance at undergraduate level have indicated that, nationally, men and women can anticipate very different rates of success in different disciplines. If the same is true for undergraduates from different ethnic groups and social backgrounds, then it would appear that the subject a student studies is perhaps the most crucial factor in predicting eventual academic success.

The writer lectures in psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The results of his research are reported in `The Curriculum Journal'

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road