Attainment gap between white and black university students ‘remains too high’, watchdog says

Gulf was more than 30 percentage points at some institutions, Office for Students data shows

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 11 March 2021 19:20
Data from the Office for Students found the attainment gap between black and white students had narrowed when comparing the last academic year to a few years before
Data from the Office for Students found the attainment gap between black and white students had narrowed when comparing the last academic year to a few years before

The attainment gap between white and black university students appears to be closing but still “remains too high”, according to England’s higher education regulator.

Black students were less likely to graduate with a first or upper-second-class degree than white peers at the vast majority of university and colleges looked at by the Office for Students (OfS) in new data.

The overall gap in attainment between black and white students, defined as the difference between those obtaining a top degree, was 18.3 percentage points in 2019-20, according to OfS analysis.

Some 68 per cent black of students gained a first or 2:1 degree in the last academic year, compared with 86.6 per cent of white students, the figures showed.

The data showed the attainment gap had reduced from 24.7 percentage points in 2015-16, the OfS said.

“While there is evidence that the gap in attainment for black students compared to their white peers is closing, it remains far too high,” Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the independent regulator, said.

“At 96 of the 97 higher education providers for which the dashboards report ethnicity attainment gaps, black students’ attainment is lower than we see for white students.”

He added: “Many providers have gaps of over 20 percentage points, with some even higher.”

Universities with large attainment gaps from the last academic year included University College Birmingham and Canterbury Christ Church University, which both had 38-point disparities.

The University of Bedfordshire, Staffordshire University and the University of the West of England in Bristol all had gaps of more than 30 points.

In 2019, universities were urged to “demonstrate their commitment” to change as a report looking at the ethnic minority attainment gap and to put forward recommendations on how they can work to tackle it.

The report by Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) said universities needed to create more opportunities to talk directly about race, racism and the attainment gap, and develop “racially diverse and inclusive environments” through representation on university leadership teams and curriculums.

Baroness Valerie Amons, then-director of SOAS University of London, said in a foreword: “The data in this report shows that even when Bame students overcome the hurdles that prevent them getting to university in the first place, they do not have an equal chance at succeeding. We are not operating a level playing field.”

A study from 2018 found black students were more likely than others to engage and participate in their university courses, but a larger proportion earned lower-level degrees and had lower satisfaction despite that.

The new OfS data also found students with a social or communication impairment were less likely to graduate with the top two degrees than those who did not report a disability, at 79 per cent compared to 84 per cent.

The figures also showed there had been some progress in closing a number of gaps across the sector, including for access to higher education for students from the most underrepresented neighbourhoods.

The gap in participation at more selective universities has narrowed slightly, the OfS said.

There was a gap of 19.2 percentage points between students from the most and least represented neighbourhoods in 2019-20, down from 19.5 percentage points in the academic year before, its analysis showed.

Mr Millward said the data showed “a slight decrease in gaps in participation between the most and least advantaged students at higher tariff universities”.

"While this is welcome, this group of universities have some distance to travel in order to ensure equality of opportunity for all prospective students, whatever their background.

"If they successfully deliver the plans they have agreed with the OfS then, by 2025, 6,500 additional students from the least represented neighbourhoods will enter these universities every year."

A UUK spokesperson said: "Universities are committed to widening access to higher education and ensuring students from all backgrounds can succeed.

"Despite the wider societal inequalities exposed by the pandemic, it is encouraging to see that universities are continuing to make progress in narrowing gaps in opportunity.

"However, universities recognise there is still a long way to go in ensuring there is equality of opportunity across higher education for students of all backgrounds."

They added: "UUK’s work to address the degree awarding gap between students of different ethnicities is ongoing and we have set out a number of recommendations to address this inequality."

Additional reporting by Press Association

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